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Sarah Oven
Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – Arizona will begin offering COVID-19 vaccinations to state residents as young as 16, throwing open a process that for months has prioritized older and ailing residents and frontline workers.

The announcement Monday comes as more than 2.9 million doses of vaccine have been administered to more than 1.8 million Arizonans, or 25 pecent of the state population. Officials said state-run vaccination sites in Maricopa, Pima and Yuma counties would start accepting vaccination registrations from younger residents beginning Wednesday.

“Our goal has been and remains to get vaccine into the community as quickly, widely and equitably as possible,” Gov. Doug Ducey said in the announcement. “Given a thorough review of vaccination data, anticipated vaccine supply and current demand among prioritized groups, now is the time to take this critical next step.”

One expert said the expansion may increase competition for vaccine among previously targeted groups, but he believes the move will be positive in the long run.

“There are people that are definitely going to benefit from this like people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and people under 55 with chronic medical conditions,” said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association. “On the other hand, it’s going to provide a lot more competition for seniors who still haven’t been able to figure out the system.”

(Related: Alaska opens vaccines to all 16 or older)

Calls seeking reaction from county health department officials were not immediately returned Monday.

State officials said 16-year-olds will be able to get vaccinated at sites using the two-dose Pfizer vaccine. Sites administering vaccines from Moderna and the one-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson/Janssen will be available to residents 18 and older.

The expansion comes well ahead of President Joe Biden’s challenge to states to make all adults vaccine-eligible by May 1, which Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ attributed to the state’s “nimble” approach to vaccine distribution.

“We anticipate more and more vaccine reaching Arizona heading into April, making it possible now to expand prioritization,” Christ said in a prepared statement with Monday’s announcement. “We have been flexible and nimble throughout, while expanding the availability of state sites to vaccinate large numbers of people rapidly.”

An employee gets a dose of COVID-19 vaccine Monday, March 22, 2021 at a special vaccination site Bashas’ set up for its employees. More than 2.8 million vaccine doses had been distributed in Arizona to 1.8 million people as of Monday, according to state data. (Photo by Travis Robertson, Cronkite News)

The state is not the only vaccine provider in Arizona, where local health departments, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies are among the scores of sites around the state dispensing COVID-19 vaccine.

Bashas’ stores, for example, held a drive-through COVID-19 vaccination event for its Maricopa County grocery workers from noon to 5 p.m. Monday. The event had three drive-up lanes to administer 300 vaccinations at the chain’s distribution center in Chandler.

Danny Golding, a courtesy clerk at the Bashas’ in Carefree, said he has been trying for a few months to get a vaccine appointment, so he jumped at the chance to get vaccinated through his employer – particularly since it was dispensing the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“I like it (the one-dose vaccine) better because I’m not the biggest fan of needles so it definitely is good that I only had to get it once and not twice,” Golding said.

Basha’s received 500 of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines last week and distributed the first 200 on Wednesday to some of its 8,000 employees.

Of the 1.8 million people who had been vaccinated as of Monday, more than 1.1 million had received all the doses needed to be fully vaccinated, according to the state health department.

Ducey said the decision to expand availability to teens is the next step in the state’s “hybrid approach” to delivering the vaccine. That approach has been based on age and had counties vaccinating frontline and essential workers, with availability gradually opening up to younger groups and those with underlying medical conditions.

Golding, 24, welcomed the lower age for vaccine eligibility.

“That should help us get to herd immunity and get back to normal, hopefully,” he said.

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Cronkite News reporter Travis Robertson contributed to this report from Phoenix