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COVID-19 vaccine rollout across Tucson gaining momentum after slow start
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COVID-19 vaccine rollout across Tucson gaining momentum after slow start

According to the public-health department, 41,084 COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in total in Pima County as of Friday. In the state, 232,125 shots have been given.

With a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccine distribution throughout Arizona, Pima County officials said they are looking to take a more “aggressive” approach, which could mean opening up additional inoculation sites at places like the Tucson Convention Center, Kino Sports Complex or Rillito Racetrack.

Over 20,000 health-care workers have been vaccinated since the county launched the first phase of distribution Dec. 17. In addition, a number of residents and workers of long-term-care facilities have started to receive their vaccines, including Sapphire of Tucson Nursing and Rehabilitation, which experienced a significant outbreak of the virus at the start of the pandemic.

While Pima County leads the state in the number of vaccinations per capita, officials say it’s not enough given the current crisis.

As of Tuesday morning, the county reported just 3% ICU bed availability and at one point had over 90 patients in local emergency rooms waiting to be admitted. Arizona had the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday.

“None of us should be happy with where we are right now. We remain persistently concerned about what’s happening in our community,” said Pima County Public Health Director Theresa Cullen. “We, as the Health Department, need to accelerate what we are doing with vaccinations and really put ourselves in overdrive.”

The department’s goal is to inoculate 200,000 people in Phase 1A and 1B by the end of March, including any remaining health-care workers, first responders, essential workers, people over the age of 75, educators and child-care workers.

The challenge is in the logistics, which includes registration, staffing, follow-ups and monitoring, says Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

“We don’t want vaccines sitting around in freezers or refrigerators. We want to get them in their arms,” Huckelberry said. “We are a community of 1,100,000 people. There’s about 200,000 under the age of 18, which are not eligible to receive a vaccine. There’ll be another 20% of the eligible that frankly will not want to have a vaccine, so that leaves us needing to vaccinate approximately 640,000 people.”

To address these concerns, county officials said they are looking to set up five regional vaccination centers that would operate under a drive-thru model. This would include sites such as the Rillito Racetrack, Kino Stadium as well as the Tucson Convention Center in partnership with the city of Tucson. Tucson City Manager Michael Ortega also said Tuesday that the city would redeploy city employees to help staff some of these new sites.

Huckelberry said there have also been conversations with the University of Arizona, which will likely work to vaccinate its own staff and students, as well as people who live in the surrounding area.

“The plan is to start standing them up, one by one, toward the end of next week with the start of Phase 1B,” said Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer. “These are logistically complicated operations, so we would like to set one up, get it going and simultaneously be planning for the second, third and potentially more sites.”

In addition to deploying their own staff to help run these new sites, the county said they are also looking for community volunteers, whether they have a medical background or not, to help make things run as smoothly as possible. Anyone who wants to volunteer can visit the county’s COVID-19 volunteer opportunities website.

Vaccine access to expand

The public is not yet able to register for the vaccine, but by the end of next week the county is expecting to move into the next phase, 1B, which will include older adults, ages 75 and up, who live at home, as well as law enforcement and firefighters, and teachers and child-care workers.

After that, Phase 1B will include essential service and critical industry workers as well as vulnerable adults who live in congregate settings.

Gov. Doug Ducey, in a Dec. 30 executive order, put the state in charge of expanding access to the vaccine by “streamlining distribution throughout Arizona and establishing additional vaccination sites.”

Ducey’s order is not preventing the county from implementing its own plans, however. Cullen, with the county’s Health Department, said the department is preparing to submit the county’s distribution plan to the state’s Department of Health Services soon.

Once the hospitals and other medical sites here finish distributing the vaccine to health-care workers, Cullen said, the county will look to those providers to help distribute the vaccine for those in 1B and beyond.

Cullen said they are working to set up a way for people to call in to register if online access isn’t possible. At this time, county residents here will be registering through the state site at, which will be updated in coming days as counties move toward 1B. Cullen said Pima County may also set up its own registration sites.

Thousands of shots given daily

At Tucson Medical Center, 5301 E. Grant Road, vaccine shots have been being administered inside, in the Marshall Auditorium, for staff workers, and then outside in a large parking lot for non-TMC staff members who fall under the 1A category, said Dr. Sean Elliott, who has been volunteering at the TMC site.

“The setup at TMC has been quite excellent,” said Elliott, a pediatric infectious-diseases specialist at TMC and emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “We were putting through 500 per day inside and another 500 outside.”

When the vaccine was first provided to the county about three weeks ago, the split was to have health-care workers on the east side go to TMC and those on the west side go to the Banner site.

During the first week, TMC was able to deliver 6,000 vaccines, he said. Claudia Koreny, TMC’s director of pharmacy, said the hospital since been averaging about 1,300 shots per day and are now ramping up to roughly 2,000 doses per day.

One of the things that helped expedite the shots? People filled out a health questionnaire when they registered online, which made it easy to move them through quickly when they showed up for their shot.

Filling out health information ahead of time means the process of getting the shot, once they were identified in the computer, took 40 seconds versus 15 minutes, Elliott said. Cullen, with the county’s Health Department, said the county is planning to do the same in order to expedite distribution.

The longest part of the process tends to be after the shot, when people wait in a line in their cars in the parking lot to make sure they do not have any adverse reaction. Medical professionals walk up and down the line of cars to make sure no one is having a reaction, Elliott said.

So far, no one with TMC has had a severe reaction.

Banner is averaging about 500 shots per day and today will begin administering second doses for health-care workers who received the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 18, said Dr. Josh Lee, a vaccination expert with Banner. In total, Banner has given out 6,423 vaccinations so far.

Banner is using its ambulatory site for distribution now, he said, and may soon open a site at Banner South, depending on the amount of vaccine received from the state.

“We are down to less than 2,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, most of which are committed to the second dose of the vaccine which will be distributed in the next few days, and starting tomorrow, we will begin distributing the slightly over 10,000 Moderna vaccine doses we have,” he said.

“Beyond getting our own health-care team vaccinated, our team is focused on reaching out to all health-care providers in Pima County, even ones not associated with traditional health-care facilities, so we can get them vaccinated in Phase 1A.”

In addition to TMC and Banner, other sites focused primarily on vaccinating their affiliated staff workers include St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s Hospitals, El Rio Health, Marana Healthcare, Arizona Community Physicians, Northwest Healthcare, Desert Senita Community Health Center, and United Community Health Center.

This week, those sites have been joined by University of Arizona Campus Health, the Drexel Heights Fire Department and the Golder Ranch Fire Department.

“Northwest Healthcare received 2,800 doses of the Moderna vaccine and began vaccinating our employees and physicians last week. We continue to vaccinate on a daily basis,” said Veronica Apodaca, director of marketing for Northwest Healthcare.

“We did have some physicians and staff who were vaccinated at either TMC or Banner earlier in December with the Pfizer vaccine, and we are grateful to those organizations for their collaboration to help protect our caregivers so we can all continue to protect the community.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar

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