BISMARCK — The North Dakota Department of Health has announced that the state's full general public over the age of 16 will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as Monday, March 29.

Some vaccine providers, including public health units in Burleigh and Morton counties, have already opened up eligibility to the general public, but other providers are still focusing on Phase 1C, which includes essential workers and adults with underlying conditions.

The Pfizer vaccine is approved for emergency use in those 16 and up, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are approved for those 18 and up.

State Immunization Coordinator Molly Howell said 16- and 17-year-olds might have more difficulty finding appointments than adults because they can only sign up for the Pfizer vaccine and most of those doses are being given out in urban areas for logistical reasons. Howell recommended that North Dakotans ages 16 and 17 seek out Pfizer-administering vaccine sites on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's vaccine finder: https://vaccinefinder.org/search/.

Howell said officials decided to open up access to the vaccine because many North Dakotans were unsure if they qualified for the jab under Phase 1C's broad definitions of essential workers and underlying conditions. The confusion about meeting eligibility requirements may be driving down demand for the vaccine, though there could also be more skepticism to get immunized among newly eligible younger adults, Howell said.

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With the eligibility requirements soon to be gone, state officials are urging North Dakotans to do their part in helping the state reach herd immunity from COVID-19. Howell noted that the quicker the state reaches herd immunity, the faster it could shed masking and social distancing recommendations.

Howell said residents who fit within priority groups, like health care workers, nursing home residents and people with underlying conditions, should still seek out the vaccine if they haven't gotten their shots already.

Alaska and Mississippi have already expanded vaccine eligibility to the general population, while a handful of states have announced plans to broaden access to the jab in the next few weeks.

North Dakota is a national leader in efficient vaccine distribution, with a total of 326,849 shots administered. About 16% of the state's population is fully vaccinated, and 27% have received the first dose.

Health experts say the positive effects of mass vaccination are already evident in North Dakota nursing homes, where more than 90% of residents have gotten at least one shot.

More than half of the state's COVID-19 deaths came in long-term care facilities, but the rates of infection and death among residents dropped swiftly after the state's November peak and have stayed extraordinarily low since vaccines became available to the group. There are currently only six nursing home residents known to have COVID-19.

Scientists are still researching whether the available COVID-19 vaccines are effective against emerging strains of the virus from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil and California, but state Disease Control Director Kirby Kruger said early signs are good.

Although none of the vaccines are approved for children under 16, Howell said parents should stay tuned into news about ongoing vaccine trials in adolescents. Howell said the COVID-19 vaccine could be authorized for children as early as this summer.

The health department urges residents to seek more information at www.health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator.

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