MURRAY – Today is the first day Kentuckians as young as 16 can get a coronavirus vaccine, and local health officials say that eligibility expansion is an encouraging sign as cases are starting to rise again nationwide.

Gov. Andy Beshear announced last Wednesday that all Kentuckians 16 and older would be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine starting Monday, April 5. Only the Pfizer vaccine is approved for 16 and 17-year-olds.

“This is a good day,” Beshear said during the press conference. “This news means that we will beat the president’s goal by a month to have COVID-19 vaccinations opened up to everyone. We are seeing in a number of states an increase in cases and hospitalizations, and it’s happening among younger people. We want to get ahead of the more aggressive COVID-19 variants and make sure that we fill every available appointment. Make a plan to get your shot of hope.”

Last Monday, Beshear said more than 1.3 million Kentuckians had received at least their first dose of a vaccine, which he said was about 40% of adults in the commonwealth. He said the state also estimated that about 70% of Kentuckians age 70 and up had been vaccinated.

Murray-Calloway County Hospital CEO Jerry Penner said he has been encouraged by the new developments in Kentucky.

“We continue to progress here to get our county fully vaccinated, so we’re happy to offer it to the 16s and over so they can catch up with everybody else (who has already been vaccinated),” Penner said. “We continue to do everything else we can to protect this county.

“This is exciting for us to be able to do in this area,” he added. “It’s nice that we’re able to offer it and nice that we’re getting enough vaccine to be able to do it.

According to NPR, during the White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing on Monday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, described a feeling of “impending doom” because of the rising number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. At the time of that report, the most recent seven-day average was just below 60,000 cases per day, which was a 10% increase compared with the previous week. Hospitalizations are up, with about 4,800 admissions per day over the last week, up from an average 4,600 per day in the previous seven-day period, NPR reported. 

“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope,” Walensky said during the briefing. “But right now, I’m scared.”

Dr. Bob Hughes, co-founder of Village Medical Primary Care, said that’s just one reason he’s glad that older teenagers can now receive the vaccine.

“I think that’s an excellent idea because the rise in cases that we’re seeing in several states are in the younger age brackets,” Hughes said. “That’s the first point, and the second point is that the quicker we get the vaccines in everybody’s arms for which the vaccines been approved, the fewer mutations will occur with the virus. It also simplifies it too for the public to understand, as well as the criteria for vaccination, with it being 16 and above for Pfizer and 18 and above if it’s Moderna.”

Hughes said that as the U.S. continues toward the goal of reaching herd immunity through vaccination, this is no time to let our guard down.

“It’s too early to assume this is gone,” Hughes said. “Obviously, it’s not gone since we saw a rise in cases by a small amount last week in Kentucky. Over the past week, they’ve been rising, and then they’ve been rising in other states as well, and we continue to have people die from this. We don’t have a significant amount of the population vaccinated yet, and until we get to that point – and where that point would be, I would say would be at least two months – the states need to stop easing up the restrictions. 

“I mean, it’s just not safe. We’re just running the risk of what’s happened in Europe where they’ve had a surge in cases. And no matter where it happens in the world, it’s going to move. You cannot keep the virus confined to Europe; it’s just a matter of time before that same thing happens in the United States unless, again, we keep the mask on and continue to do safe practices.

The CDC advises the following basic steps to protect yourself and others from the spread of COVID-19:

• Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth to help protect yourself and others.

• Stay 6 feet apart from others who don’t live with you.

• Get a COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to you.

• Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.

• Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available.

• Monitor your health daily, watching especially for for fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19.

Kim Paschall, the Calloway County Health Department’s interim director of public health, could not be reached for comment before press time.