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Mass. dramatically expands vaccine eligibility, adding those who are overweight to the list

LPN Jennifer Cox from the Whittier Street Health Center fills out patient information before administering a COVID-19 vaccine.
LPN Jennifer Cox from the Whittier Street Health Center fills out patient information before administering a COVID-19 vaccine.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The universe of Massachusetts residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine dramatically expanded on Monday as appointments opened to people 55 and older and those with one qualifying health condition, which now includes anyone who qualifies as overweight.

Massachusetts health officials on Friday added being overweight to the list of health conditions that allow someone to book an appointment, directing residents to a body mass index calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine whether they qualify.

The state had previously said opening appointments to the new age group and those with one certain health condition would open up appointments to more than 1 million additional residents. It is not clear how many Massachusetts residents are now eligible under the overweight designation, though it had the potential to significantly increase the number of people who can now book slots. According to CDC data, about 74 percent of American adults age 20 and older are overweight or obese.

Other health conditions that were added to the list on Friday include type 1 diabetes, HIV, and having a substance use disorder.

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Also on Monday, nearly all public school districts sent elementary students back to full-time, in-person learning, representing another step toward achieving normalcy in Massachusetts.

The expanded list of qualifying health conditions brings Massachusetts in line with recommendations from the CDC.

Shortly after midnight, the state updated its website to reflect the addition of the new priority groups.

Mass.gov

Massachusetts recently switched to a preregistration system for its state-run mass vaccination sites. Mass. residents can sign up in advance, regardless of eligibility status, and be notified when it’s their turn to book an appointment at one of the mass sites. Eligible residents also can use vaxfinder.mass.gov to search for open appointment slots at other locations, like pharmacies and grocery stores.

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The state is currently building a tool that will allow preregistered residents to alter their submission if they qualify under the newly added conditions. The feature will be “available soon,” a statement said.

The vaxfinder.mass.gov website was still functioning properly in the early morning hours. In the past when additional groups have become eligible for the vaccine, the mad dash to sign up for an appointment has resulted in the site suffering intermittent outages or crashing altogether.

At least one major pharmacy where vaccine appointments are available, CVS, updated its eligibility requirements soon after midnight to reflect the state’s updated vaccine rollout plan. But at 7 a.m., all appointments at locations statewide were fully booked.

As of 12:47 p.m., the CVS website displayed that all appointments in the state were fully booked.

CVS updated its eligibility requirements to reflect the changes made on Monday in Massachusetts shortly after midnight.
CVS updated its eligibility requirements to reflect the changes made on Monday in Massachusetts shortly after midnight.CVS

The coronavirus case counts are steadily rising as 90 percent of school districts in Massachusetts prepare to send elementary school students back to full-time, in-person learning. Last week, COVID-19 cases among public school students and staff members reached their highest weekly total since the beginning of the academic year.

Despite the record-breaking report — 801 new coronavirus cases among students and 244 among school staffers for the week that ended April 3 — state officials and public health experts have said the figures aren’t a signal that schools are unsafe.

They cited varying factors, including a rise in virus cases among young people and the number of children and staff members inside schools recently hitting the highest levels since classrooms closed in March 2020.

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CDC officials have said in-person school is safe for children, as long as precautions are taken, including maintaining 3 feet of distance between students and universal mask-wearing.

But the return to in-person learning has been complicated in some communities, such as Springfield and Lynn, by a shortage of school bus drivers.

Tom Hamilton, executive director of the School Transportation Association of Massachusetts, said there are about 1,200 fewer school bus drivers on the job since the pandemic abruptly sent students home in March 2020. School leaders in Springfield warned families last week that a bus driver shortage could cause transportation disruptions on Monday.

Some districts, including Boston and Worcester, have received waivers from the state to delay the return to in-person learning. All elementary schools are expected to be fully in person by May 3, according to state education officials.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top health infectious disease expert, cautioned that the United States is “not out of the woods yet.” Coronavirus cases and deaths nationwide have climbed in recent weeks. But Fauci said in an interview with CNN’s Jim Acosta over the weekend that the country is “almost there.”

As long as the US follows two key steps — getting as many people vaccinated as soon as possible and doubling down on public health mitigation efforts, such as wearing masks — additional deaths, hospitalizations, and infections can all be prevented, he said.

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This comes in the wake of a number of states, including Massachusetts, easing their coronavirus restrictions in recent weeks.

“This is not going to last forever,” Fauci said. “Just hang in there a bit longer, and the vaccine and the vaccinations of people in this country are going to override the surge of the virus.”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3 million people, on average are now receiving a COVID-19 vaccine on a daily basis in the US. The country also reported a new record on Saturday, with 4 million doses administered for the first time in a single day.

The number of people fully vaccinated in Massachusetts — with either two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson — rose to 1,478,520 on Sunday, according to the Department of Public Health.


Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shannonlarson98. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.