The latest on the COVID-19 vaccination effort in Indiana

(Photo supplied/Berrien County Health Department)

Indiana is expanding coronavirus vaccinations for the second time in as many days.

After dropping the eligibility age to 55 on Tuesday, the state health department has lowered it again to anyone 50 and up. Anyone over 50 can now sign up for vaccination through the state portal.

And teachers of any age are eligible for a separate federal program by signing up through Kroger, Meijer or Wal-Mart.

State health department chief medical officer Lindsay Weaver says the approval of the new Johnson and Johnson vaccine, and the arrival of more than 50-thousand doses in Indiana, made the rapid expansion possible. The department plans to administer 12-thousand of those doses in a three-day mass vaccination effort at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway starting Friday morning.

Among those getting vaccinated Friday at the Speedway is Governor Eric Holcomb. At age 52, the latest expansion makes him eligible. He’ll be joined by Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray (R-Martinsville) and Minority Leader Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis); Indiana Black Legislative Caucus Chair Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis); and the father of Congressman Andre Carson (D).

The lineup highlights the department’s efforts to overcome vaccine skepticism, especially among African-Americans. Health commissioner Kris Box says the department is watching vaccination data and reaching out to community leaders where they see gaps. Gary Health Department director Roland Walker says the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which researchers allowed Black patients with syphilis to go untreated without telling them, still contributes to hesitancy in the African-American community. But Walker says he’s gotten his shot, and says he’s urging Gary’s heavily minority population to not only get vaccinated, but do it quickly to stay ahead of the virus’s mutations.

The city and state are finalizing plans for a mass vaccination event at Calumet High School March 20 and 21. Vaccination drives are already scheduled for the weekend of March 12 at the Ivy Tech campus in Sellersburg, and at Notre Dame the weekend of March 26.

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine requires only one dose instead of two, which Walker says will make it easier to vaccinate the homeless and others without ready access to health care. But Box says the federal government has advised not to expect additional doses the next couple of weeks, though shipments of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will continue. She says she hopes to be able to lower the minimum age for vaccination to 40 by the end of the month.

Patients with a handful of underlying health conditions are already eligible regardless of age, and Weaver says the department is assessing whether to add others. But she says lowering the age to 40 will take in nine out of 10 people with the conditions the Centers for Disease Control lists as risk factors for COVID-19. Weaver says people in their 40s are three times as likely as younger patients to be hospitalized if they catch the virus, and 10 times as likely to die of it.

Box says the next group will be people 40 and up. She hopes that’ll happen this month, but after a first shipment of the new Johnson and Johnson vaccine this week, she says the state’s been told not to expect more of that vaccine the next couple of weeks.

State health commissioner Kris Box says she hopes to reach people in their 40s by the end of the month. And a separate federal program will allow teachers of any age to get shots at Kroger, Meijer or Wal-Mart.

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