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State will allow federal vaccination center in Pima County, but questions its ability to run it
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State will allow federal vaccination center in Pima County, but questions its ability to run it

The new FEMA distribution site is expected to provide around 300,000 new vaccine doses in Pima County.

The state will allow Pima County to work independently with FEMA to set up a vaccination center as long as no vaccines are taken from the state.

The state reversed its decision to block a federally run vaccination site in Pima County and will allow FEMA to work independently with the county to set up a site, Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona health department director, said Friday.

The new Federal Emergency Management Agency point of distribution, or POD, is expected to provide around 300,000 new vaccine doses split between the Kino Event Center and El Pueblo Center — two areas with large Hispanic populations.

During a March 24 update, Pima County's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia discusses the state's rejection of a federally funded vaccine site in Tucson and their plans to expand vaccine availability.

At a news conference Friday, Christ said the state sent a letter to FEMA delegating authority to the county to implement the vaccine site as long as the POD doesn’t take away state vaccine supply or resources.

However, the letter Christ wrote to FEMA announcing the decision puts the county’s ability to host the site into question while creating further stipulations.

The state health director pointed to the county’s recent request to the state to reimburse its COVID-19 testing costs she said are “unapproved.”

“Based on our recent experience with Pima County, we have concerns about their ability to adequately support your site, given their inability to financially sustain other COVID-19 related public health activities they have chosen to undertake, and have since billed the state for unapproved costs,” Christ wrote in the letter.

The state is refusing to pay back the county for the $7.6 million it has spent on testing from Dec. 21 to Jan. 15 — a time of peak COVID-19 cases — but hasn’t informed the county of the reasoning for the cutoff date.

In February, the state health department announced it would release $100 million of the $418 million in funds it received from the CDC to Arizona’s counties to support testing costs. Pima County was allocated $14.4 million but has yet to receive the money.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the county’s request for reimbursement is irrelevant to its ability to help run a federal POD.

“The testing was performed by our public-health agency responding to their obligations in public health during the height of the pandemic,” he said. “All we asked the state to do is consider reimbursing us for those expenses. They arbitrarily made a decision to say before Jan. 15, they weren’t eligible.”

FEMA has set up vaccination centers around the country in socially vulnerable areas supported and staffed through federal funds. The county, however, may have to provide funds for other logistics like cold-chain storage and a registration site.

Christ called into question the county’s ability to pay for these resources, but Huckelberry said the county has already established vaccination site support in the three regional distribution points it has run since December.

“Understand that a federal POD comes with a lot of federal personnel, and they’re paid for by the federal government,” Huckelberry said. “Frankly, operating this POD will be less expensive than operating the county PODs.”

Christ also told FEMA no federal immunization funds can go toward the federal site.

Huckelberry said, if necessary, the county will pay for the federal vaccine site through its general fund, but it expects the costs to be reimbursable by the American Rescue Plan. The federal relief package allocates funds directly to the county without going through the state first.

Before the decision to allow a federal POD’s implementation without state help, Gov. Doug Ducey and Christ turned down FEMA’s offer over concerns it would drain state resources and take from its vaccine supply.

FEMA sent Christ a letter insisting the concerns were unfounded, but the health director said she’d rather have the doses supplying the federal site given to the state, as it already has the infrastructure in place to administer vaccines.

On Wednesday, the Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to appeal to the state to reconsider allowing the FEMA site. Later that day, Ducey said he would reconsider his decision.

While Christ said her mind was changed after FEMA reassured her doses for the federal POD wouldn’t come from the state’s allocation, her letter to the federal agency calls for written assurance the county has the funds and resources to run it.

Huckelberry says the county is prepared to provide those assurances. While he has more hurdles to climb with the state’s letter, the county administrator looks forward to the opportunity to supply more vaccines to the county.

“I’m very pleased with the reconsideration because it means 210,000 more people in Pima County are going to be vaccinated quickly,” he said. “We don’t know why they changed their mind, but we’re pleased that they did.”

Contact Nicole Ludden at nludden@tucson.com. On Twitter: @nicolemludden.


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Nicole joined the Star in 2021. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at ASU’s Cronkite school in 2020 and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, AC Press and Arizona Press Club.

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