Confident that the state will soon see a surge in available COVID-19 vaccines, Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday announced plans to expand eligibility for highly coveted appointments to more groups starting Monday, and opening them to all residents age 16 and over by April 19.
Until now, the state has focused on vaccinating its currently eligible population, which includes all people 65 and over, teachers and educators, and residents who have two or more chronic health conditions.
But starting Monday, public-facing workers — including grocery employees and transit and sanitation workers — will be allowed to book shots, as will all residents 60 and over. On April 5, anybody 55 and over, as well as people with one of the listed health conditions, will become eligible, before the doors swing fully open two weeks later. While everybody will become eligible, it will still take time to process the millions of appointments, officials cautioned.
The announcement came as the one millionth Massachusetts resident was expected to soon become fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and put the state on a course to satisfy President Biden’s directive that states make all adults eligible for the vaccine by May 1. States across the country already have begun announcing eligibility dates, and two — Alaska and Mississippi — have already made residents 16 and over eligible.
Baker had previously resisted providing a detailed eligibility schedule, noting that it was dependent on the number of vaccine doses the federal government sends. But on Wednesday, he said calls with the Biden administration convinced him that the supply will leap in the coming weeks, especially for the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“The projections that the feds put out on the call yesterday were, especially with respect to J&J . . . really encouraging, both for the very end of March and for the month of April,” Baker said.
“I think we are going to see hundreds of thousands of doses,” he said.
The announcement was a relief to essential workers who will become eligible on Monday. Hailed as heroes throughout the pandemic, some have felt frustrated — though understanding — that they were not allowed to sign up sooner.
“We kind of knew that at some point other people were going to be more essential than we were,” said Handel Barnes, assistant produce manager at Stop & Shop in North Reading. “Think about the people they put in front of us. How can you argue with that? You really can’t.”
The schedule announced Wednesday marked a significant change from prior plans, adding new eligibility thresholds based on age. Previously, the state had said it would open appointments first to essential workers and then to those with one or more comorbidity, before opening to anybody age 16 to 64. Now, people 60 and older, and, in early April, 55 and older, will be added to the pool ahead of the general public.
“There’s a very strong and important correlation between COVID and age,” Baker said. “We believe adding these groups by age will help us vaccinate more of our most vulnerable population faster.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, has praised the approach of gradually adding more people based on age, a policy adopted by several states.
“Given that risk is primarily driven by age, and comorbidities, the approach to keep widening the pool, keep widening the pool, every couple of weeks . . . I think that’s a pretty good strategy,” Jha said in a recent interview. “By May 1, if we keep widening the pool bit by bit, anybody who wants to be in the pool will have been ready to get in.”
The group of workers set to become eligible on Monday will add another 360,000 people to the pool. The list of eligible industries, available at mass.gov/COVIDvaccine, includes grocery, restaurant, sanitation, transit, funeral, and retail workers.
“We’re obviously very excited and have been waiting for this for a while,” said Ronn Garry Jr., owner of Tropical Foods grocery store in Roxbury. Knowing his 90 employees will soon be eligible, he said, “will help me sleep better at night.”
Not every industry that faces the public will be eligible Monday. Hairdressers, for example, must still wait to be vaccinated as part of the general public. But Yolanda Crowell, salon director at G20 Spa + Salon in the Back Bay, was comfortable with the timeline.
“We’ve already gone this far, what’s one more month?” she said.
The state is encouraging residents to use its newly unveiled preregistration system, which matches eligible groups with appointments at the nearest of the seven mass vaccination sites and alerts them when it is their turn to sign up. More locations are expected to be added to the system in coming weeks.
While residents are allowed to sign up on the site before they are eligible, they will not be placed in the digital queue until the date they are allowed to book appointments.
Appointments can also be booked at pharmacies and regional or local vaccine sites, and at hospitals through health care providers. Baker noted that, in addition to the increased number of doses flowing into the state, the federal government’s direct supply to CVS Pharmacies has grown significantly. Although CVS generally follows the state’s eligibility guidelines, it has veered from them in the past, such as by offering vaccines to teachers early.
The state’s facilities, meanwhile, are ready to handle far more people, Baker said.
Although the statewide and national vaccine drives have so far struggled to satisfy the massive demand, public health experts have predicted that states may soon be faced with a different challenge: encouraging greater participation among those who are unwilling or hesitant to vaccinate, and who struggle to book an appointment or physically access a clinic.
Massachusetts on Wednesday announced the release of $27.4 million in federal funds to support the state’s push to get the vaccine out to hard-hit areas, including communities of color and those with high immigrant populations, where some residents are “justifiably hesitant and nervous about the vaccine,” Baker said.
The funds will help 20 municipalities targeted in the state’s vaccine equity initiative: Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, and Worcester. Those communities were exempted from the state’s decision last month to reduce vaccine supplies to municipal governments, to ensure they could better reach both hesitant populations and those with fewer options to access vaccines.
The federal funding will also support community health centers and pay for initiatives such as transportation to appointments, registration assistance, medical interpreters, and public outreach.
Baker said survey data indicates the number of people who are outright opposed to the vaccine is small, and that many who are skeptical can be convinced.
“The goal is going to be to try to convince a lot of those folks to come and get vaccinated,” Baker said. “I think we all have a lot of work left to do about that one.”
Katie Johnston, Janelle Nanos, Brittany Bowker, and Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.