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Arizona to open COVID-19 vaccine appointments to everyone 16 and older
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Arizona to open COVID-19 vaccine appointments to everyone 16 and older

Tucson’s state-operated COVID-19 vaccination site at the University of Arizona will be open to all Arizonans 16 and older beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday, officials said Monday.

State-run COVID-19 vaccination sites — including the one in Tucson at the University of Arizona — are opening registration to all Arizonans 16 and older beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday, March 24.

The move by the state comes despite the fact that there continue to be problems with some people who already are eligible accessing the website to schedule a vaccine appointment.

Now there will be more competition for those slots.

Registration at Arizona’s state-operated COVID-19 vaccination sites will be open to all Arizonans 16 and older beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday, March 24. This video walks you through the process to register for vaccine appointments using the​​ website.

Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s health director, said a high demand is anticipated for the next two weeks. “And then it will slow down after that.” 

The change scraps the system for some people who had been waiting their turn.

Until Monday’s shift by the state, those who are 45 and older were next in line for priority, with Christ saying they would become eligible next month. Then those 35 and up would get their chance at the beginning of May.

And it wasn’t until later in that month that everyone else 16 and older — the minimum age allowed under the current standards — would be able to get in line.

Now she said, there is enough vaccine and enough appointments so that anyone who wants to get immunized now can.

But not necessarily right away — and not everywhere.

Priority system problematic

The first nearly 60,000 appointments will open Wednesday morning and are expected to be filled quickly.

Ditto with a new batch of 80,000 or more slots that opens up Friday.

“But as long as people are patient, they will be able to get a vaccine,” she said.

The “where” of all that is another question.

Christ said this will definitely apply at the mass vaccination sites run by the state in Tucson, metro Phoenix and Yuma.

And pharmacies that offer the vaccine also are expected to take on those 16 and over, she said.

Counties that run their own vaccine programs may still stick with their age- and job-based priority system if they believe there is still high demand among those most vulnerable, whether by age, medical condition or occupation, Christ said.

Pima County said Monday it will continue to operate under its current priority system: those at least 55 years old and front-line essential workers. The county, however, said it is reviewing the state’s decision.

Christ on Monday appeared to be relieved at finally scrapping the multi-tiered priority system first approved when the vaccines became available. It set up a line based not just on age but where someone was living or a person’s occupation.

“Some of those decisions on how to prioritize were just heartbreaking,” she said.

“No one wants to have to activate a committee called the Vaccine and Antiviral Prioritization Advisory Committee,” she said. “This is one of the first times we ever had to do that.”

Christ said it also recognizes what didn’t work.

“When we were going to open it by age categories, what we identified is we were already meeting a large portion of those with chronic medical conditions that put them at higher risk,” she said.

“But because of the age category, we weren’t able to vaccinate those that lived with them or worked around them,” Christ continued. “This will give us the ability to vaccinate entire families at the same time.”

And the fact is, she said, there are slots available that weren’t anticipated.

A surplus of appointments

For example, some people were able to find earlier appointments. Then they were canceling the ones they already had made, to the tune of almost 3,000 a day, Christ said.

Add to that, she said, is the anticipation that more vaccines will be available starting with the last week of March.

“What we’re hearing is they’re going to increase it by several million each week over the next few weeks,” Christ said.

“We get about 2% of that,” she continued. “So we’re hoping that what that would give us is about 40,000 to 60,000 additional doses a week.”

That’s on top of what the state is getting now: About 160,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, 130,000 of the Moderna inoculation and about 15,000 to 16,000 of Johnson & Johnson.

Part of what drove the decision to abandon the system, she said, is that there were indications it already was sort of falling apart.

Some of it is the fact the state was sometimes allowing “plus-one” inoculations: A person who showed up with an eligible person sometimes also received the vaccination, regardless of that person’s age or status.

Then there’s the fact that some younger people also were getting the vaccine because they fell into other eligibility categories, like being a teacher.

And then there’s the belief that there’s soon going to be more vaccine than people who want it.

Christ figures there are about 5.5 million people who fit the age category. Of that, she said about 2 million already have been inoculated.

That leaves about 3.5 million. But Christ said that the response rate appears to be in the 55% range, putting the total people who will need the shots at 1.5 to 2 million.

Finally, even with the demand, there were still slots available each week, like the 60,000 this week.

“We were actually a little surprised that we still had that many appointments left,” she said. “And that was at every state site across the state.”

So with vaccines available, Christ said it made sense to open up the eligibility in order to use the drugs “efficiently.”

Time to take “critical next step”

That, however, still leaves issues with the state website that some have found so frustrating when trying to set up an appointment.

“We continue to make enhancements to our website,” she said.

One is that appointments are saved as people fill out the forms “so they shouldn’t be able to have them snatched out from under them, which will be a big, huge help.”

Still, she conceded that it will remain hard to get an appointment for the next few weeks as demand will be high.

As of Monday morning, almost 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered throughout the state. More than 1.1 million Arizonans have been fully vaccinated, the state Health Department said.

“Our goal has been and remains to get vaccine into the community as quickly, widely and equitably as possible,” Gov. Doug Ducey said in a news release Monday. “Given a thorough review of vaccination data, anticipated vaccine supply, and current demand among prioritized groups, now is the time to take this critical next step.”

Before the department’s announcement, University of Arizona officials said the UA vaccination site had between 100 and 200 appointments available each day this week, despite appointments opening up for the week on Friday.

It was the first week the UA had more vaccines available than appointments filled, said Holly Jensen, a UA spokeswoman. Statewide, there were more than 58,000 appointments still available this week, the Health Department said Monday.

COVID-19 numbers falling

Health officials on Monday reported 484 new confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide but no deaths, marking another day of downward trends in the coronavirus outbreak. In Pima County, 87 new coronavirus cases were reported.

Arizona’s pandemic totals have now risen to 836,737 cases and 16,745 known deaths since the pandemic began.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

State health officials said the number of confirmed or suspected coronavirus hospitalized patients around Arizona decreased to 647 on Sunday.

In addition, the number of ICU beds used by COVID-19 patients fell to 180.

Arizona’s weekly percent positivity for COVID-19 diagnostic testing, an indicator of how much the virus is spreading in the community, is at a five-month low.

Health officials plan to release public service announcements and social media advertising to encourage holdouts to be vaccinated, Christ said. Vaccines will become increasingly available in pharmacies, doctors offices and neighborhood vaccination events to reach people who don’t speak English or can’t travel to a mass vaccine clinic.

Ducey urged people 55 and older who are currently eligible for the vaccine to make their appointments soon before they face a crush of competition from younger people.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Stephanie is a Tucson native and graduated from the University of Arizona in 2014. She worked for newspapers in Rapid City, South Dakota; Manhattan, Kansas; and Lake Havasu City before moving back to Tucson.

Related to this story

  • Updated

Pima County will not yet follow the state's new guidelines of COVID-19 shots for anyone 16 and older, but will open appointments to some new groups starting Thursday, March 25. Here are all the details. 

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