Across much of the country, people are still setting middle-of-the-night alarms, accumulating dozens of Walgreens tabs on their browsers, and ferrying older adults to coveted appointments, all in an effort to secure a COVID-19 vaccine dose for themselves.
Demand still outstrips supply for the jab. But in New Hampshire, “we just have so much availability,” Governor Chris Sununu said Thursday. “We’re going to have a lot of vaccine here.”
Thanks to that supply, New Hampshire will on April 19 become the only New England state to offer vaccine appointments to all out-of-state residents — a sign, Sununu said, that “we’re clearly well ahead.”
Sununu said his state has nearly a quarter-million first-dose appointments available before Memorial Day, a huge figure for its population of about 1.36 million. State data show 265,000 people are already fully vaccinated, and more than 500,000 have gotten at least one shot.
In addition to being a boon for Massachusetts residents willing to make the drive for a dose, New Hampshire’s move is part of a growing trend of expanding vaccine eligibility as still the limited federal supply of vaccine doses grows by the week, experts said.
President Biden has said that all American adults should become eligible for the vaccine by April 19, and Massachusetts has announced that residents over 16 will be permitted to seek an appointment starting that Monday.
The early challenges of the vaccine rollout were eligibility confusion and supply limitations, said Jen Kates, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. But “we’re now quickly entering this new era where virtually every state is going to have opened up its eligibility within a very short period,” she said.
“The reason states are opening is that there’s more supply,” she said. “It’s important, at this phase, to remove barriers to vaccination, and residency becomes a barrier.”
That’s especially important for people who live in one state but work or attend school across state lines, a point of confusion for many in recent months.
National data show New Hampshire leading in the percentage of residents who’ve received at least one vaccine dose, with Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts also among the top states.
More than half the country, including most of New England, has limited vaccine eligibility to those who live or work in their borders, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, while six states currently only allow residents to be vaccinated. Nineteen states don’t have any residency requirements. The reason states set eligibility requirements is that the federal government sets its allocations based on their populations, Kates said.
New Hampshire had previously been an outlier in New England for its unusually strict criteria; most other states allowed those who lived, worked, or studied within their borders to access doses. The about-face from Sununu comes after he was criticized earlier this month for saying out-of-state college students should go back to their home states to be inoculated.
Arnie Arnesen, a radio host and former Democratic candidate for governor in the state, said students paying “full freight” to New Hampshire colleges deserved better treatment from state leaders.
Sununu said this week opening eligibility up was possible since New Hampshire residents “have first shot at” booking doses and so many are still available.
In some states, like Mississippi, vaccine hesitancy is part of the reason tens of thousands of appointments remain open.
Experts said it’s hard to say how big a role hesitancy is playing in New Hampshire. But the state’s demographics suggest that may be a concern.
New Hampshire’s population is 90 percent white, and much of the state is rural.
A spokesman for Sununu did not respond to questions about whether vaccine hesitancy explains why the state has so many available appointments, but said more than 60 percent of New Hampshire’s adult population has already made the choice to be vaccinated.
“This early success demonstrates that Granite Staters are eager to receive the vaccine and that we’re well on our way to creating a protective bubble around much of our population,” Sununu said in a statement.
New Hampshire Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette said at a press conference this week that the state hoped to address vaccine hesitancy by supplying more doses to family doctors with the trust of their communities.
“That’s where you can overcome some of that hesitancy is with your primary care physician who you have a long, therapeutic, trusting relationship with,” Shibinette said.
It remains to be seen whether the rest of New England may open its doors for vaccine appointments, a step some experts support.
“Anything that can get more vaccine access to anyone . . . moves us in a positive direction,” said Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center. “From the public health standpoint, if that person’s in front of you and asking for the vaccine, I would advocate for giving it to them, even if they’re not a resident of the state.”
Representatives for Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and the state’s COVID-19 Command Center did not immediately return a request for comment.
“Maybe New Hampshire is the trendsetter,” Kates said.