NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - New York announced on Monday (March 29) that it will make all adult residents eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine by April 6, a symbolic shift in the state's recovery from a deadly pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of residents and crippled the state's economy.
Yet the expansion will significantly test the state's health apparatus, which will face a flood of newly eligible residents seeking coveted appointments while the vaccine supply just matches demand.
The race to vaccinate New Yorkers comes at a critical time during the pandemic: The state is recording new cases of the virus at one of the highest rates in the country, with several more contagious variants of the virus continuing to spread.
"We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but until we get there it is more important than ever for each and every New Yorker to wear a mask, socially distance and follow all safety guidelines," Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement on Monday.
The expanded vaccination programme puts New York on track to beat President Joe Biden's goal of making every adult in the country eligible for a vaccine by May 1. Before Monday, it was one of only a few states that had not yet set a timeline to do so.
New York will first allow residents who are 30 and older to begin receiving vaccinations on Tuesday. It will then expand to all those 16 and older on April 6. The expansion comes one year after the worst period of the initial coronavirus outbreak in New York state.
Asante Mensah, 42, broke into a smile when he learned he would soon be eligible for the vaccine.
"It feels so great," Mensah, a security guard who lives in New York City, said.
Samra Albertine, 17, said she intended to make an appointment as soon as she became eligible.
"It makes me less likely to get the virus," she said. "And I wante to see more people."
Even as Mr Cuomo gradually loosened vaccine eligibility criteria over the last month, lowering age thresholds and broadening the pool of workers who qualified, he expressed reluctance to set a specific target date for doing away with the state's requirements.
The governor said last week that he did not want to outline a timeline for more widespread vaccination until he was more confident that New York would have adequate vaccine supply on hand for its population.
"I just want to make sure that the allocation projections that we're getting from the feds are right, frankly," Mr Cuomo said at a news conference last week. "I don't want to say, 'We're going to open up to 30-year-olds in three weeks,' and then something happens with the allocation."
A spokesman for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Even before expanding eligibility, the state had faced concerns over its ability to provide shots to those who needed them most. Those seeking appointments had to check dozens of websites, with the state and New York City having completely distinct scheduling systems, both of which favoured residents who had high-speed internet access or who had ample time to sit and refresh sites for appointments.
Marian Carney Ryan, 51, a teacher who lives in Rochester, said that booking an appointment for her shot had been a messy endeavour.
"It was a huge competition," Ms Ryan said. "It was like getting tickets to a Rolling Stones concert."
Just hours after Mr Cuomo's announcement, there were signs that demand for appointments for the newly eligible might be overwhelming.
TurboVax, a website that compiles availability from city and state vaccine systems to help people locate open appointments, said on Twitter that 22,000 users were looking for vaccination slots on its site on Monday afternoon - more than four times its previous high.
As of Monday, 29.6 per cent of people in New York state had received at least one shot of a vaccine, while 16.8 per cent were fully vaccinated, according to the state Health Department's data.
In New York City, about 32 per cent of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to city data. The city has quickened its vaccination pace in the last month, with about 66,000 vaccine doses administered per day in March, up from about 44,000 per day in February.
While many are eager to receive the vaccine as soon as possible, the state must still confront a number of people who are sceptical about coronavirus vaccines or reluctant to get vaccinated, even as studies have shown the shots to be safe and effective.
Public health experts have repeatedly emphasised the need for widespread immunity to limit the spread of the disease and facilitate continued reopening. The state has launched campaigns meant to address vaccine hesitancy, which could threaten efforts to slow the virus' spread.
Keishorne Scott, 34, a life coach in Brooklyn, said that while he was happy more people would be eligible, he did not immediately plan to get vaccinated. Instead, he wanted to wait and see if those who received the vaccine had negative side effects.
"I think it's one step closer," Scott said. "Safety is another reason for people to get it, but it's challenging. A lot of people are still afraid."