Flu Forecast

In a matter of days, Pima County is on track to pass the paradoxical intersection of administering 100,000 COVID-19 vaccines after surpassing 100,000 coronavirus cases today.

On Thursday, the county administered 94,370 doses and reported 100,272 coronavirus cases Friday, according to Arizona Department of Health Services data.

“Our vaccination plan was really designed to increase early impact through accelerated immunization,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county’s public health director. “The good news is I think we are starting to see that acceleration, and hopefully, we will soon start to see the impact of that on our community in terms of morbidity and mortality.”

Those 75 and older are eligible for vaccinations, as are educators, childcare providers and protective service workers—a group Cullen estimates to be around 150,000.

According to the public health director, the county is administering about 35,000 doses a week, which puts them on track for 140,000 vaccines by the second week of February.

With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines needing second doses for full immunization, Cullen said the 1B priority group in Pima County’s vaccine rollout might not be done so soon.

“One would think in four weeks we'd be done, right? Because not everybody's going to get the vaccine. Remember, people are getting two vaccines. So once we throw that second vaccine in there, the numbers become a little extended in terms of how long it takes,” she said.

The next eligible group will be the 65 and older population, which Cullen estimates is a group of more than 200,000. Although the current priority group still needs to receive second doses, the 65 and over crowd could be eligible sooner than expected.

“The question everybody wants is when are we going to flip the switch? I would reassure you that we're in the process of doing some calculations, and some of it is related to that second shot,” Cullen said. “But it'll definitely be sometime in February, maybe the end of February. We thought maybe the middle of March—I think it will be earlier if our vaccine distribution holds.”

Pima County needs state help to open sixth distribution site at Rillito Park

Although the county’s original accelerated vaccination plan foresaw the opening of the sixth point of distribution (POD) for vaccines at Rillito Park on Feb. 5, a lack of help from the state is hindering the county’s ability to open it.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry wrote a letter on Tuesday to ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ asking for aid to create a POD at Rillito, adding the location could provide up to 5,000 vaccinations a day if operated 24/7.

In a press conference last Friday, Christ suggested Pima County denied the state’s help in setting up a state-run POD, but added, “that is always something that we are welcome to offer as we get additional vaccine in the state.”

Huckelberry contends the county never denied such an offer.

“I checked with both Deputy County Administrator and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia and Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen on this matter. They, as well as I, do not recall any conversation with a State official declining assistance in setting up a future state operated POD,” Huckelberry wrote in his letter to Christ. “I apologize if we somehow left you with that impression.”

Cullen said she believes a passing comment she made created the miscommunication.

“I think it's something that I stated that made the state believe we didn't want a POD,” Cullen explained. “I was asked at one point whether we wanted a POD, and it was at that moment I said we're in the process of standing up five. We have enough vaccine for five, when we've done this five, let's re-talk.”

The county health director said Pima County’s current PODs are providing enough throughput that they don’t need to set up the Rillito POD for at least two weeks, but the county needs the states’ help staffing it when the time comes.

“If we stand up another site, which would at that point be projected to be our largest site, we would need a very significant number of volunteers and staff. So if the state comes in and helps us, the expectation would also be that it would be great if we had help for the staffing, the volunteer schedule and for the long haul,” Cullen said. “It's fatigue-laden work that requires precision because it is a medical intervention. We are increasingly worried about fatigue among our staff, our volunteers and even our contractors.”

Vaccine allocation is more dire in presence of COVID-19 mutations

Maricopa County has a 24-hour state-run POD at the State Farm Stadium in Glendale that opened on Jan. 11 and plans to open a second one at the Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Monday.

The state’s allotted the 24-hour PODs 140,400 vaccine doses, and they administered 92,669 shots as of Thursday, according to ADHS data.

The state ordered Pima County 140,425 doses as of Thursday, only 25 more than the state-run POD.

“To me, that is a really important statistic because it speaks to the fact that we need to have more vaccine on the ground here if we are going to continue to make good progress,” County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia said. “Right now, our PODs are firing on all engines, it isn't always pretty and it's not always perfect, but we're actually doing a pretty darn good job of getting vaccine administered into the right people's arms.”

With the arrival of mutations of COVID-19 in the United States, the acceleration of vaccine distribution is becoming even more crucial.

The variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil are more contagious than the original coronavirus and have been identified in the U.S., according to the CDC.

The CDC says while studies are still underway, they suggest that the COVID-19 vaccines will defend against the mutations.

Cullen said the county has sent out coronavirus test swabs to look for the presence of virus mutations in the state and hasn’t found any yet.

“The quicker we can immunize if there does happen to be variation in the genetic sequencing of the virus, the more likely we are to have people protected. Now, even if there’s not genetic changes, the more likely we are to stop the pandemic,” she said. “It's why acceleration becomes a critical component of the impact of immunization. At the same time I say that, it's difficult because I'm asking people to be patient. We don't have enough vaccine right now to go any quicker than we are.”

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