State residents between the ages of 16 and 64 who have serious medical conditions will have access to the coronavirus vaccine next month. (Photo via Mark Hakansson/Flickr)

California public health officials on Friday announced the state’s intent to expand the pool of residents eligible for the coronavirus vaccine next month to include all adults with health conditions that have the highest risk of coronavirus-related death.

Beginning March 15, health care providers and other vaccine administrators across the state will be able to vaccinate residents between the ages of 16 and 64 that have at least one “severe health condition.”

Those conditions, according to state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, include cancer, stage four or higher kidney disease, pulmonary diseases necessitating oxygen, Down syndrome, a weakened immune system due to an organ transplant, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart conditions like coronary artery disease and cardiomyopathies.

According to Ghaly, the updated vaccine eligibility will add 4-6 million people to the roughly 13 million that are currently vaccine eligible in California.

That would represent roughly half of the state’s population according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We are giving the next many weeks to work with stakeholders, providers and other groups so that we can ensure that when the full number of individuals in these categories … do in fact become eligible, we have built the capacity and the services to ensure that individuals can conveniently, and in appropriate settings, receive vaccines,” Ghaly said Friday during a briefing on the new vaccine eligibility guidance.

To date, the state has focused on vaccinating frontline health care workers, nursing home residents and staff and residents across the state who are older than 65.

Counties are also allowed to vaccinate education and child care, emergency services and food and agriculture workers, but a dearth of vaccine doses and the need for two doses for the two vaccines currently available on the market to take effect has limited the ability to do so in many counties.

Ghaly said the roughly four-week gap between Friday’s announcement and the eligibility changes on March 15 are due in part to ensure counties have enough vaccine doses to make them available to residents with health conditions that put them at greater risk of dying from the coronavirus.

Nearly 8 million vaccine doses have been delivered to local health departments and multi-county health care providers like Kaiser Permanente. Roughly 5.5 million doses have been administered as of Thursday.

According to Ghaly, the state’s local health departments and providers are receiving between 1.1 and 1.3 million vaccine doses each week, a number which is expected to grow in the coming weeks as vaccine production increases.

However, state and local officials have stressed that the need for two doses continues to hamper the ability to begin vaccinating newly eligible people.

“The bottom line is we are still dealing very much with a scarcity of vaccine,” Ghaly said.

The change in vaccine eligibility also addresses concerns by advocates for residents with debilitating health conditions, who argued they were left out of the state’s pivot last month to an age-based system of determining vaccine eligibility rather than the risk-based system that state officials had first unveiled when vaccines became available.

“The governor has said he is committed to equity,” Disability Rights California Executive Director Andy Imparato said in a statement last month.

“We share his commitment, and we support vaccinating older Californians as a priority group, but the commitment to equity is meaningless if all of the high-risk people who aren’t over 65 have to wait until June to be vaccinated,” he said.

Ghaly said Friday that the state and the third-party vaccine administrators it has contracted with – Blue Shield and Kaiser – still plan to move to an age-based eligibility system “at some period in the future.”

“We are working to determine what that age span will be and when that date will be triggered,” he said. “It is going to be largely driven by supply of vaccines … but we are not prepared yet to define that.”