As early as this week, the groups of essential workers and those older than 75 included in the next phase of Pima County’s vaccine distribution plan may have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, the Pima County Health Department announced at a press conference on Jan. 5.
Pima County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia said the county anticipates rolling out phase 1B of vaccinations at the end of the week.
Phase 1B includes prioritized essential workers in education and protective services, essential workers in fields like transportation and government, adults in congregate settings with high-risk medical conditions and individuals over 75.
According to a memorandum from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, the county plans to set up six vaccine centers for group 1B at the following locations:
•Tucson Medical Center
•Banner North Cancer Center
•The University of Arizona
•Kino Banner South/Kino Stadium District
•Tucson Convention Center
Those who qualify for the vaccine in group 1B can register to receive it at this link: podvaccine.azdhs.gov .
The vaccines potentially available to a much larger population this week come as Pima County has reported 83,386 COVID-19 cases and 1,263 deaths as of Jan. 11.
According to Dr. Joe Gerald, a professor at UA who creates weekly coronavirus epidemiology reports based on Arizona Department of Health Services data, cases for the week of Jan. 3 rose 25% from the week prior throughout the county. The actual number is likely higher, as testing capacity is “suppressed,” according to his Jan. 8 report.
“The SARS-CoV-2 virus is mowing through Arizona like a sharpened scythe,” Gerald wrote in the report. “Fatalities are stacking up like cordwood in advance of a long winter. Barring intervention, daily cases and fatalities will double or perhaps quadruple before the outbreak collapses under the weight of natural, not vaccine-induced, immunity later this spring.”
As of Jan. 9, every Arizona county except Mohave, Yuma, Gila, Pinal, Santa Cruz, Apache and Cochise was in phase 1A of the vaccination process, which includes healthcare workers, emergency medical service workers, and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.
However, the health department warns there are “hundreds of thousands” of individuals encompassed in the 1B category, and estimates vaccinating the upcoming group could take until the end of March.
According to Huckelberry’s memo, the number of those eligible for the vaccine in group 1B ranges from 275,000 to 325,000 individuals.
The health department is in the process of setting up distribution points for the vaccine and finding professionals who can administer them.
“That will take some significant effort and logistics. We’re in the process of trying to stand up a variety of points of dispensing of PODs [points of distribution] to do some of this,” Francisco said. “We’re in the midst of engaging a lot of community health practitioners, whether it’s the federally qualified community health centers or private practices, to also be folks who can deliver vaccine, especially to the 75-plus age group.”
According to the state health department, 148,292 vaccines had been administered in Arizona as of Jan. 9.
In Pima County, 31,179 vaccines had been administered. The county has a total vaccination rate of 2,985 per 100,000 individuals.
On Jan. 5, Francisco said the strategy for determining locations those in group 1B will be able to receive their vaccines is “still evolving.”
“Our goal here at the county is making sure that we have multiple entry points for folks who fit in any one of those five categories that are part of phase 1B to walk through. So it may be a worksite clinic, it may be a POD, like TMC or Banner, it may be their own individual doctor’s office,” Francisco said. “Part of the strategy here is to have the greatest degree of flexibility that we can to serve the largest number of people. At the end of the day, I care more about the number of people vaccinated than about making sure that we got every single person in the right line.”
According to the county health department, 65,000 doses had been allocated to Pima County as of Jan.5, and 47,000 had actually arrived.
“None of us should be happy with where we are right now. It’s really critical that we accelerate our immunization process,” Public Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said. “I’m really grateful to Pima County that we are making this commitment to not only ensure that we have a higher rate than everybody else, but that isn’t really what matters. What matters is that we get a significant number of our community vaccinated, and we have given ourselves a March 31 timeline to anticipate that we will have a significant number of people vaccinated by then.”
Cullen stressed the county has been in an accelerated phase of transmission of the virus for six to eight weeks, and hospitals continue to struggle with the surge of COVID-19 patients compromising their capacity and ability to provide care.
At one point the morning of Jan. 5, Cullen said only 3% of the county’s ICU and general hospital beds were available while 95 patients—60 with coronavirus— waited in emergency departments for admission.
“The bright spot here that I think is also important for us to share is that the goal of vaccinating a large proportion of our population is actually in hand, we are developing the very specific strategies that will allow us to get to that point...I really think that we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Francisco said. “But this is no time for us to loosen up on our mitigation measures. This is our opportunity to double down on them so that people will benefit from this.”