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Florida to lower coronavirus vaccine eligibility to 40, then to 18

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the changes Thursday on Twitter. People 40 and up can get shots starting Monday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces Thursday that the state's coronavirus vaccination eligibility age will be lowered to 40.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces Thursday that the state's coronavirus vaccination eligibility age will be lowered to 40. [ Twitter ]
Published Mar. 25
Updated Mar. 27

Florida will lower the age for coronavirus vaccination to 40 on Monday, then to all residents 18 and older a week later, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday, marking the largest and final expansion of eligibility in the state’s rollout of shots for adults.

The news, announced on Twitter, brings long-awaited relief to younger residents across Florida — and to the state as a whole as COVID-19 infections are falling and the pandemic seems to be inching closer to its end.

“We’re ready to take this step,” DeSantis said in a video, adding that the state has vaccinated nearly three-quarters of its more than 4 million seniors 65 and older, who he set as his first priority for vaccines.

The governor noted President Joe Biden’s May 1 deadline for states to make the vaccines available to all adult residents. As of Thursday, about 5.3 million of Florida’s 22 million residents had been vaccinated, according to state data.

Related: A guide to finding a coronavirus vaccine in Tampa Bay and Florida

DeSantis said Florida has also seen success vaccinating people ages 50 to 64, who became eligible through two earlier expansions this month, and that that has allowed the state to provide doses to more residents.

The announcement came with a caveat for younger Floridians. Those who are 16 and 17 are also eligible for vaccination, but only with the drug produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, according to DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice. The vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have not been approved for people under 18.

DeSantis made the eligibility change suddenly and with little fanfare, following vague comments about when all adults would get access to shots. In recent weeks, he’s floated possibilities and uncertain timelines, saying only that he would lower the eligibility age to 18 “way before May 1.”

Meanwhile, officials in some Florida counties, like Orange and Miami-Dade, disregarded eligibility requirements set by the governor and announced in mid-March that they would start offering shots to people as young as 40.

Related: Eligible for a coronavirus vaccine soon? Here’s when you can sign up.

Thursday’s news sparked excitement in Tampa Bay and across the state, with people celebrating online and urging others to sign up for shots when they become eligible. Chris Piedescalzo, 45, of Tampa, immediately called his wife, Jennifer Scaia, and they’ve decided to try and snag a shot at Tampa Greyhound Track on Monday, he said.

“This makes it feel like we’ll be able to somewhat return to normal,” Piedescalzo said, adding that, like many, he and Scaia have put their lives on hold for a year, postponing vacations and visits to elderly parents who live out of state.

Chris Piedescalzo and Jennifer Scaia of Tampa plan to try and get coronavirus vaccines on Monday, when Florida will lower the age of eligibility to 40, making shots available to them.
Chris Piedescalzo and Jennifer Scaia of Tampa plan to try and get coronavirus vaccines on Monday, when Florida will lower the age of eligibility to 40, making shots available to them. [ Courtesy of Chris Piedescalzo ]

Mostly, Piedescalzo, who produces a film podcast, has missed going to theaters. He plans to still wear a mask for a while once he’s vaccinated, he said, but it’ll feel good to take in a movie on the big screen like he used to. He’s also planning a September trip to New York to see his favorite band, Irish rock group The Frames, which had to cancel its 30th anniversary tour last year.

“We’ve been going back and forth on whether we thought we’d have the vaccine by then,” he said. “And now it’s looking like we will.”

Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida, called DeSantis’ announcement “a really important moment” in the state’s fight against the coronavirus, and a huge step toward the state’s return to normalcy.

“Certainly, by May, June and July, more of us will be able to spend time with our children, our grandchildren, our friends, our neighbors,” he said. “As you get vaccinated, and as your family and friends get vaccinated, you can feel very comfortable and confident spending time with them.”

Jay Wolfson, professor of public health at the University of South Florida
Jay Wolfson, professor of public health at the University of South Florida [ University of South Florida ]

The expansion gives Wolfson faith that the state’s distribution systems are strong and that vaccine supply will be able to meet the demand from those who will soon become eligible, Wolfson said. But he also urged patience.

“This doesn’t mean that the Publix or Winn Dixie or Walgreens in your neighborhood is going to be able to give vaccines to everybody tomorrow,” Wolfson added. “Help is on the way. Hope is on the way. The vaccine is available and we have enough of it. But we still have to be patient.”

Ignatius Carroll, a spokesperson for the state Division of Emergency Management, said the Tampa Greyhound Track is ready to handle the influx of newly eligible people expected to seek a shot in the coming days.

The site is still awaiting more specifics from the state about how and if operations will change, he said. But organizers had been told by Thursday that the site will be able to give out 1,000 first-dose shots per day until April 7, with no appointment required.

Carroll urged the public to “pack your patience” when trying to get a vaccine, at the track and elsewhere. “With a change in age, we are going to have a lot of people out here,” he said.

Related: Your questions about coronavirus vaccines in Florida, answered

Some other states, like Alaska, Utah, West Virginia and Mississippi, have already opened vaccine eligibility to all residents 16 and older. Texas, the second-largest state by population, and Oklahoma announced this week that they would open vaccines to all starting Monday. Georgia said it would do so by today.

Vaccines are key to getting Florida to herd immunity, which occurs when enough people become immune to a disease, either through natural infection or vaccination, that the disease is unlikely to spread.

It’s not clear how long immunity from either source lasts, and experts don’t know exactly what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated for Florida to reach herd immunity, said Mary Jo Trepka, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Florida International University.

“I think we need to be shooting for at least 80 percent,” she said. “Of course, the problem is that that’s a very high, high bar to get to.”

As of Thursday, Florida had vaccinated about 14 percent of its residents and ranked in the bottom 12 states for percentage of residents vaccinated, said Jen Kates, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on national health issues.

While the state’s eligibility expansion is welcomed, it presents concerns, too, she said. “If we open up the floodgates and people rush, and they can’t get an appointment, how does that get messaged and managed as the state waits to get more supply?” she asked.

Jen Kates, vice president of Kaiser Family Foundation
Jen Kates, vice president of Kaiser Family Foundation [ Courtesy of Jen Kates ]

Because Florida, unlike some other states, has based eligibility mainly on age and not offered vaccines to other key groups, like essential workers, there could be a crush of demand, Kates said. That could widen the equity gap for vaccines that Florida is already experiencing.

“The risk is that you could fall back even further in equity if a state doesn’t make the extra effort to let people know that eligibility is open and make sure that there are vaccination sites in their community,” Kates said. “That is going to be an essential part of this. We can’t have a successful vaccination effort if people are left behind.”

Staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this report.

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