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Next phase of vaccine rollout off to a chaotic start, posing hurdles to elderly residents
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Next phase of vaccine rollout off to a chaotic start, posing hurdles to elderly residents

Fred Boice receives a vaccination at Tucson Medical Center’s Marshall Center. Some 44,000 Pima County residents rushed to register for an appointment under Phase 1B. For many, calls to the county’s assistance line result in long waits.

As COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths continue to climb throughout Arizona, Pima County residents 65 and older are struggling to navigate the chaotic rollout of vaccine distribution, which varies from county to county.

Pima County is currently in Phase 1B priority, which includes people 75 and older, education workers, child-care providers and protective service occupations. Once the county gets through the priority groups in Phase 1B, people 65 and older will also be eligible to receive a vaccine.

Within less than 12 hours of announcing its move to the next phase on Jan. 14, more than 44,000 Pima County residents rushed to register for a COVID-19 vaccine, but many others still have unanswered questions.

Tucson Police Department Chief Chris Magnus was administered the Moderna vaccine along with other members of the department during a Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine clinic at the Tucson Convention Center, on Jan. 15, 2021. As part of the 1B vaccination phase, vaccinations are being offered to members of protective services including TPD. (Josh Galemore / Arizona Daily Star)

Calls to the county’s registration assistance line often result in either extremely long hold times or a busy signal, leaving the most vulnerable residents feeling frustrated and anxious.

For Jeff and Julia Hahn, 74 and 75 years old, the conflicting information from multiple sources has been the most difficult part. Between the two of them, the Hahns said they spent close to five hours on hold with the Arizona Department of Health Services before they found out they needed to go through the county Health Department to get vaccinated.

“With Arizona being a hot spot of infections worldwide, we are concerned to say the least … probably angry, frustrated, feeling abandoned by our state government would start a more accurate list of our situation,” Jeff Hahn said.

With a background in education, the couple said that while they are no strangers to computers, they still found the registration process confusing. Fortunately, the two were able to get registered through Tucson Medical Center’s online portal, but they have serious concerns about how other people their age will fare in the process.

“We are fortunate,” Jeff Hahn said. “We feel there will be many other people in Pima County without access to the internet, for instance, or without the time, energy and experience to navigate this system.”

Those over age 65 may face a variety of unique challenges when it comes to getting vaccinated, including for some a lack of internet access, computer literacy and transportation. At the same time, this group continues to be disproportionately impacted by the virus.

While residents over 65 make up just 14% of the county’s recorded COVID-19 cases, they also make up 41% of hospitalizations and nearly 80% of deaths.

Logistical issues

Pima County officials said Thursday they are especially focused on ensuring that elderly residents do not get left behind, but that they continue to iron out a number of logistical issues.

“The registration system is certainly challenging for those who may be unfamiliar with computer systems, applications and the internet; therefore, we have stood up a call center that was overwhelmed early in the process,” said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. “We have stood up additional capacity in a virtual call center for assistance.”

The registration assistance line, 520-222-0119, will be staffed regularly Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Since so many people are calling in to get help right now, county officials urge anyone who can’t get through to keep trying or ask a family member or friend to help them register online.

As older residents continue to struggle with registration, Huckelberry said more than 250 police officers and members of the courts showed up to Tucson Medical Center without an appointment Friday, demonstrating “how easy it is to introduce absolute chaos into the registration system.”

“It is unfortunate these individuals failed to understand the importance of observing established protocols and inserted their registration above those who are more critical," he said.

TMC and all other vaccination sites have since been told to turn away anyone who does not have an appointment.

There are also a number of logistical issues that Health Department officials say are out of their hands, including vaccine availability.

The state currently allocates about 12,500 vaccines to Pima County every week. At that rate, it will take about 10 weeks to get through the first priority groups and another 12 weeks to get through the rest of Phase 1B, which includes people 65 and older.

“We know that there is a lot of anxiety and a lot of enthusiasm for folks to become vaccinated, and we want to make sure that we deliver a quality product in terms of the delivery of this vaccine into people’s arms. That’s what we’re focused on,” said Pima County’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia. “But we also need to be very, very transparent that there are pieces of this that we do not own.”

Garcia also said, however, that county officials are hopeful the state will allocate more vaccines every week as they carry out plans to open additional vaccination sites over the next several weeks.

The new sites will include the Kino Sports Complex, the Tucson Convention Center, the University of Arizona, Rillito Regional Park and an unspecified location in Green Valley.

Huckelberry said the state notified the county that its allocation would increase to 28,000 doses a week.

What about long-term care?

The Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, a partnership between the Centers for Disease Control, CVS and Walgreens, is facilitating on-site vaccination of residents and workers at Arizona’s skilled-nursing facilities, which include about 450,000 people.

According to Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ, all of Arizona’s long-term-care facilities will have received at least their first round of vaccinations by the end of this week. Starting next week, the program will start distributing vaccinations to enrolled assisted-living facilities.

State officials did not immediately respond to requests for data specific to Pima County facilities.

County urges patience

County officials encourage people in the Phase 1B priority group to continue registering for the vaccine. Even if there are no appointments available, people who register will be placed in line for the next available appointment.

“It’s not that all the appointments have been ‘booked,’ it’s that there are more registrations than there is vaccine on hand,” county officials said in an email. “People are still being given appointments every day because the system is modulated.”

The Pima County Health Department and Pima Council on Aging continue to work on solutions for senior residents who are homebound who do not have transportation, as well as residents who don’t have computers. The details of these plans have yet to be finalized.

Contact reporter Jasmine Demers at

On Twitter: @JasmineADemers

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