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State to open COVID-19 vaccination site at the University of Arizona
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State to open COVID-19 vaccination site at the University of Arizona

The University of Arizona will soon become the first state-operated COVID-19 vaccination site in Pima County, but when it becomes fully functional depends on one thing: vaccine supply.

Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s health director, said officials are getting the UA site going now, even without enough vaccine available, in order to have the resources and staffing in place “so when we do get more vaccine, the site is ready to go to full capacity.”

It will not open as a 24/7 operation to start but will have a “soft launch” on Feb. 18, with the goal of being fully functioning by Feb. 22.

The UA site, like two other state-run sites now operating in Maricopa County, will provide shots for people age 65 and older, unlike the Pima County-run sites, which are currently focused on those 70 and older.

Those eligible can begin registering for appointments at the UA site at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16.

Gov. Doug Ducey made the announcement Wednesday. He said the state’s Department of Emergency and Military Affairs will partner with the UA and the county’s Health Department to eventually vaccinate up to 6,000 people a day on the campus.

That will be a sizable jump from the 1,000 or so residents getting shots there now each day as the UA has been a county-run vaccination site.

The UA site will extend its hours to operate daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. starting on Feb. 22, and could eventually be open all night once more vaccine becomes available. It will offer drive-up and walk-in appointments.

People who are already signed up at the UA site through the county will retain their appointments.

The university was chosen over the previously discussed Rillito Racetrack site because it’s already an operating point of distribution, or POD, said Christ.

State is again asking U.S. for more doses

Pima County is only scheduled to receive 17,850 doses this week, and Christ said that will likely continue for the next couple of weeks until the state can obtain more vaccine from the federal government.

Pima County received about 30,000 doses a week for the last two weeks before this 40% cut.

Linda Wills, 71, receives her first vaccination shot at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., on February 10, 2021. The university will serve as the state’s first 24/7 vaccination site in Southern Arizona, dramatically increasing vaccinations across the Tucson metro area starting on Feb. 18.

Pima County has immunized over 165,000 people so far and about 130,000 of those residents will need a second dose within the next month.

Christ said the state matches vaccine allocations to ensure second doses in counties around the state. But beyond that, she said, there’s not much extra vaccine right now.

“We are matching those second doses,” she said Wednesday, “and so they should be there.”

In January, Arizona requested 300,000 additional doses from the federal government to be followed by weekly allocations of 300,000, but Christ said that request was denied.

She said state officials have since re-submitted that request and are now waiting on an answer.

County might soon open sites to 65-up, too

The current pace of vaccinations means Pima County could start vaccinating those 65 and older as early as next week if enough vaccine is available, said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county’s medical director.

The current priority restricts vaccinations to people age 70 and over along with police, firefighters, people working in the court systems, higher education workers, teachers and licensed child care providers.

The state will provide financial support, staffing help and technological support to get the UA site running, Christ said. However, nothing has been specified yet, according to county officials.

“Pima County has yet to receive any remuneration from the state for its considerable COVID-19 testing efforts, or for our enormous effort to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of Pima County residents as quickly as possible,” said Mark Evans, the county’s communications director.

“We are quite anxious to receive word from either the state or the federal government about how county taxpayers can expect to be relieved of these substantial financial burdens caused by a global pandemic. In the meantime, we will continue to protect the public health,” he said.

Robbins says supply is presing concern

Dr. Robert Robbins, the university’s president, said he is “thrilled” the state chose the UA as its next site.

“To be part of something that can help the whole community is pretty special,” he said.

However, he said the lack of vaccine is a pressing concern.

“If we’re going to build this out and run a 24/7 operation, they’ve got to supply us the vaccine or else we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing,” he said.

Adherence to an appointment schedule will be important to prevent cars from getting backed up along the UA Mall, Robbins said, adding he’s confident it won’t be a problem.

Trying to make sure no one is left behind

Another concern is how much vaccine this could take away from county efforts to reach vulnerable populations, since many of the people who get shots at the state sites have been people with the resources to utilize them.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he is concerned about shots being taken away from people already at a disadvantage for getting the vaccine, such as people with transportation difficulties, or who are homebound, or who don’t have the technology needed to get appointments.

“We don’t want them to get left behind. I caution everyone that without increased vaccine to operate this expanded POD and to maintain current county vaccinations efforts, vaccinating vulnerable and disadvantaged populations will be more difficult,” Huckelberry said.

Christ said the state eventually plans to start working with faith-based leaders to do community points of distribution in hard-to-reach communities.

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


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