By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska, one of the most successful U.S. states in inoculating its residents, has become the first to make COVID-19 vaccines available to anyone age 16 or older, eliminating most eligibility requirements for people who work or live there.
Governor Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, announced the new rules on Tuesday for his state of about 730,000 people. More than one quarter of Alaskans have received at least one vaccine shot, second only to New Mexico, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Certain regions of Alaska are nearing a 90% vaccination rate among elderly people, officials said.
Nationwide, 18.8% of the population has received at least one shot, according to the CDC.
Many states are struggling to meet the vast demand for vaccines. Differing eligibility requirements have created a patchwork system, with certain states still restricting vaccines to adults 65 or older, along with people in high-risk groups.
The COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are approved only for people age 18 and older, but younger Alaskans can receive the Pfizer vaccine.
Officials hope that making vaccinations widely available will boost the state's crucial tourism industry ahead of the summer.
"Alaska's also somewhat of a seasonal state with regard to aspects of the economy," Dunleavy said at a news conference. "We're hoping that we can get the cruise ships back there, the tourism industry back here."
As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 128 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines had been distributed in the United States and 95.7 million shots had been administered, according to the CDC.
As the pace of inoculations picks up, several states have moved to relax COVID-19 restrictions.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper on Wednesday announced an agreement reached with legislative, health and education leaders to reopen many schools in the state for full in-person learning.
Under the plan, all elementary schools would return to in-person education full-time while districts would choose whether middle schools and high schools are to reopen their classrooms or offer hybrid learning, officials said. The new legislation is expected to move through the legislature this week.
In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers' union on Tuesday reached a tentative deal for students to return to school in April. The agreement is contingent on teacher vaccinations against COVID-19, extensive health measures and the county’s impending exit from California’s most restrictive tier of health regulations.
Earlier this week, New York City's public school system -- the nation's largest -- said it would welcome high school students back to the classroom on March 22 as part of its gradual reopening.
The city also welcomed back movie fans to theaters last week, nearly a year since cinemas went dark.
Texas and Mississippi have taken bolder actions, lifting statewide mask mandates and most restrictions on businesses.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan took similar action on Tuesday when he removed several mitigation measures, including limits on outdoor and indoor dining.
In another move toward recovery, Governors Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy announced on Wednesday that New York City and New Jersey restaurants will be able to expand indoor dining capacity to 50% beginning March 19. Restaurants in the rest of New York state will expand to 75% capacity.
Also on Wednesday, the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid said it had eased its recommendations to make it easier for nursing home residents to have visitors.
The new guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services urges outdoor visits when possible. But it also approves of indoor visits for residents who are not infected, quarantining or living in a home located in high infection-rate area where fewer than 70% of the facility's residents have been fully vaccinated.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen, Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Will Dunham, Aurora Ellis and Jonathan Oatis)