by Todd Feurer and Chris Tye

CHICAGO (CBS) — Gov. JB Pritzker will significantly expand vaccine eligibility for most of Illinois next month, making shots available to anyone age 16 or older starting April 12, although Chicago will continue to set its own rules for who gets inoculations in the city.

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The governor had already opened vaccine eligibility to people ages 16 to 64 with serious underlying health conditions on Feb. 25 as part of what he dubbed “Phase 1B-plus” of the state’s vaccination plan. The governor’s announcement Thursday morning essentially combines Phase 1C and Phase 2, making the only requirement for a vaccine for non-Chicago residents that they be at least 16 years old, beginning April 12.

Pritzker’s office said, on April 12, all state-supported mass vaccination sites, local health departments, and pharmacy partners that receive vaccine from the state’s allocation will be instructed to make shots available to everyone 16 and older.

Although eligibility will expand on April 12, that doesn’t mean everyone 16 and older will immediately be able to get shots, just that appointments will be available.

Pritzker said he has full confidence the state systems will be able to handle all the expected surge in demand.

The move comes as vaccine distribution in Illinois continues to ramp up. Pritzker said more than 800,000 doses of vaccines were delivered to the state this week, and weekly shipments are expected to increase to 1 million doses by April.

“The Biden administration has met or exceeded all of its vaccine projections to date, and I have every confidence that they will continue to do so,” Pritzker said.

The governor also said the state will continue to increase the number of available vaccination sites, and deploy more members of the Illinois National Guard to help administer vaccines.

However, Pritzker said people will still need to be patient about receiving the vaccine once eligibility opens up further.

“If everyone tried to get vaccinated on the same day, it just couldn’t be done. Nevertheless, by mid-April, we will be at a point where dividing up the population into phases won’t make sense with the ever-increasing supplies that we expect to see,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker said the state is now averaging about 100,000 vaccinations per day, meaning about 1% of the state’s population gets a shot every day, a pace the governor called promising.

Currently, to be eligible for a vaccine in most of Illinois, you must be healthcare worker, longterm care facility resident or staff, frontline essential worker, age 65 or older, or have a serious underlying health condition that puts you at greater risk from the virus, including cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, heart conditions, a compromised immune system due to an organ transplant, obesity, pulmonary disease, and sickle cell disease; as well as pregnant women, the disabled, and smokers.

Chicago gets its own separate supply of vaccines from the federal government, and on Wednesday Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the city would enter Phase 1C of the vaccination plan on March 29, opening eligibility to people with underlying conditions that put them at greater risk from the virus, and for essential workers who didn’t qualify under previous phases.

Qualifying essential workers include restaurant staff, clergy, legal workers, media, retail workers, and more. Chicago’s list of qualifying health conditions varies slightly from the state’s list, and includes cancer; cardiac, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular disorders; chronic kidney disease; chronic respiratory disorders; diabetes; physical, developmental, visual, hearing, or mental disabilities; neurologic conditions; Down syndrome; compromised immune systems (including from transplants, immune deficiencies, HIV/AIDS, use of corticosteroids, or use of other immune weakening medicines); liver disease; pregnancy; obesity; schizophrenia spectrum disorders; sickle cell disease; and thalassemia.

Also Wednesday, Cook County officials announced vaccine eligibility in the suburbs would expand on Monday to include those who are 16 or older and have underlying health conditions defined by the state.

Pritzker had already opened vaccine eligibility to people with underlying health conditions in most of the rest of the state on Feb. 25.

The move to start vaccinating everyone age 16 and up in most of Illinois comes after President Joe Biden last week urged every state to open up the vaccine to every adult by May 1.

“His administration has been quick and decisive to allow Illinois, for example, to hurdle that bar two and a half weeks earlier, on April 12. It’s truly amazing to be at this point in our pandemic response,” Pritzker said.

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Pritzker also announced a new “bridge phase” in the state’s reopening plan, which will allow for a gradual increase in capacity limits for businesses and public gatherings as vaccinations continue to climb.

“Illinois will advance towards normalcy with a dial-like approach, allowing us to dial it up as things are improving,” Pritzker said. “This will allow Illinois to restore normal operations faster without ignoring the risks attendant with the new variants that we see rising around us.”

The new bridge phase will allow for greater capacity limits at businesses, museums, zoos, and spectator events. People with proof they have been fully vaccinated, or with a negative COVID-19 test one to three days before an event or public gathering will not count against capacity limits.

To advance into the bridge phase, the entire state must reach a 70% first-dose vaccination rate for Illinoisans age 65 and over; have at least 20% of ICU beds available; and hold steady on COVID-19 and COVID-like illness hospital admissions, mortality rate, and case rate over a 28-day monitoring period.

As of Thursday morning, Pritzker said approximately 58% of Illinoisans age 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

In addition, to prevent another surge in new COVID-19 cases, the state will go back to an earlier reopening phase if it sees an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, a decrease in ICU bed availability, an increase in COVID-19 mortality rate, or an increasing case rate over the course of 10 days.

The entire state is currently in Phase 4 of the governor’s “Restore Illinois” reopening plan, with the fifth and final phase essentially a full reopening. The new “bridge phase” will allow for a gradual increase in capacity limits for businesses before later moving to Phase 5.

Illinois first entered Phase 4 of its reopening plan last summer, but the fall surge of the pandemic prompted the state to begin imposing regional mitigation efforts beginning in October, and those limits were tightened as cases continued to climb through November. Those regional restrictions were gradually lifted in January and February as COVID-19 cases steadily declined across the state.

To advance to Phase 5, the state must reach a 50% vaccination rate for residents age 16 and over and meet the same metrics and rates required to enter the transition phase, over an additional 28-day monitoring period. As of Thursday morning, 28%. of people age 16 or older in Illinois have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“The increasing vaccination rates are how we will move forward, and they are how we will get closer and closer to that herd immunity,” Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

Ezike and the governor also said Illinois will keep its statewide mask mandate in place until the CDC recommends lifting that requirement.

“We cannot lose our momentum. To do this, we will continue to wear our masks. We absolutely will not have any mask burning parties,” Ezike said. “Wearing the mask is not going to be forever, but until more people are vaccinated, this will be the path forward.”

Ezike said the state’s key virus metrics are vastly improved since the fall surge, and continuing to wear masks and keep distance from others will help keep up that momentum.

On Thursday, IDPH reported 2,325 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 statewide, as well as 34 new deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, Illinois has reported a total of 1,216,090 cases, including 21,022 deaths.

The statewide seven-day average case positivity rate stands at 2.4%, and has now been below 3% for 32 days in a row, the longest such stretch of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations from COVID-19 are also down significantly since the fall surge. As of Wednesday night, 1,120 coronavirus patients were being treated in Illinois hospitals, including 252 in the ICU and 100 on ventilators. After peaking at 6,175 hospitalizations in late November, Ezike said hospitalizations are now the lowest they’ve been since the state started tracking them last April.

Meantime, a total of 5,587,315 doses of vaccine have been delivered to Illinois since December, and 4,375,171 doses have been administered statewide. A total of 1,645,032 people in Illinois have been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday night, accounting for 12.91% of the population.

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“We are seeing the number of people vaccinated increase every day, and all signs are pointing in the right direction for moving towards getting back to doing more of the things we love in the ways that we love to do them,” Ezike said. “Combining these decreasing trends in cases and hospitalizations and deaths with increasing vaccinations; that is clearly a recipe for ending this pandemic.”

CBS 2 Chicago Staff