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Pima County expands vaccine eligibility but not as much as the state
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Pima County expands vaccine eligibility but not as much as the state

Pima County will expand its COVID-19 vaccine eligibility Thursday to certain groups, but will not follow the state’s new guidelines of shots for anyone 16 and older.

County officials say that’s because they want to focus on getting shots to the most vulnerable residents first.

“It’s not that we never would have opened up to 16-plus but we would have done it on a slightly different schedule,” said Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer, referring to the changes the state’s health authority made this week. “I wanted us to be able to cover a heck of a lot more of the (ages) 55-plus first.”

There are 400,000 to 500,000 people — not including those anticipated to decline the vaccine or residents under age 16 — left to be immunized in Pima County, said Mark Evans, county director of communications.

And he said there are not enough vaccine doses available to open it up to everyone without leaving high-risk residents competing for hard-to-get spots.

Arizona, by contrast, opened up shot appointments this week for people 16 and older at state-run vaccination sites; the only such site in Tucson is the University of Arizona.

The state’s changes created confusion within the larger counties, Evans said. The Pima County Health Department’s focus, considering the limited vaccine availability, has been getting shots to people who are most vulnerable either due to work or health conditions, he said.

For example, he said, the group 1C, which includes people living with chronic health issues or disabilities, was still pending here and in other larger counties when Arizona opened up slots at state-run sites to all adults.

Here is what Pima County is doing instead: Starting at 9 a.m. on Thursday, March 25, vaccine appointments will be made available at county-run sites — Tucson Medical Center, Kino Sports Complex and the Tucson Convention Center — to three groups based on specific criteria including:

  • Age, which includes anyone over age 55, regardless of other health conditions or type of employment.
  • Risk, which includes anyone over age 16 who has a disability or: is experiencing homelessness; lives in a congregate setting/receives in-home or long-term care; smokes; or has a high-risk medical condition as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention including cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Down syndrome, heart conditions that include heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies, immunocompromised individuals, organ transplant recipients, people with a body mass index over 30 kg, sickle cell disease or type 2 diabetes mellitus.
  • Work, which includes anyone over age 16 who works in the following fields, regardless of other health conditions: health-care worker and health-care support staff, emergency medical services, long-term care facility staff, in-home long-term care, protective services, education and childcare, food and agriculture, restaurants and bars, U.S. Postal Service, manufacturing, grocery and convenience stores, including carnicerias, state and local government, public transportation, auto repair, business/financial services, clergy/faith leaders/traditional healers, court personnel, critical trade workers including plumbers, electricians, HVAC, food packaging, funeral services, gas station workers, power and utility, shelters, warehouse distribution, veterinarians and veterinary staff.

“We realize that this is not fully aligned with what Gov. (Doug) Ducey announced earlier this week; however, our decisions are based on the current vaccination rate for 55 and up, which is at 42%, as well as our commitment to ensure ongoing access to vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county’s health director.

“We anticipate appointments will be filled quickly and as we move these groups, we look forward to being able to align with the state’s recommendations within the next six weeks,” she said.

Currently, most appointments set for the county-supported vaccination sites will be for mid- to late April.

The Arizona Department of Health Services announced on Twitter Wednesday that all online appointments newly available at state-run sites, for both Tucson and Phoenix points of distribution, were taken within 20 minutes.

As of March 23, more than 400,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Pima County and 200,000 people here have been fully vaccinated. The county has surpassed its goal of administering 300,000 doses by the end of March.

“The question we have been asking since the beginning,” Garcia said Wednesday, “is how do we make the vaccine available to people who have chronic conditions, how do we make it available to people who have disabilities? When do they get to have a bite of the apple?”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com


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