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Teens can now get anti-COVID booster shots at Pima County sites after federal OK

Younger teens can now get their booster vaccinations against COVID-19 at Pima County sites, after federal officials approved third shots for 12-15-year-olds on Wednesday.

Anyone in that age group is now eligible for a Pfizer booster shot, providing it has been at least five months since their second dose of the vaccine.

"We urge that every eligible child be vaccinated and to receive the booster at the appropriate time," Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, said in a news release. "We believe that will help ensure that we are able to keep schools open, keep students, staff and faculty healthy, and better protect entire families."

The expansion of booster shots comes as Pima County is facing a "stark upswing" in the number of COVID-19 cases, and the county is pushing hard to ensure widespread testing despite supply issues as health officials attempt to mitigate a second winter of the novel coronavirus.

Across Arizona, unvaccinated people are 31 times more likely to die than those who've gotten their shots, state officials said.

Statewide, there have recently been 7,000-10,000 or more new reported COVID infections daily.

Despite a "lull" in supplies of COVID test kits, officials are working to make them widely available, and two FEMA-sponsored teams have arrived here to help treat people for COVID-19, said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, during a press conference Wednesday.

Pima County's overall case rate is over 400 cases per 100,000 people, said Cullen, and the overall positivity rate here for COVID-19 is around 19 percent, according to the CDC. However, Cullen said that at testing sites sponsored by the county, officials are seeing infected rates ranging from 15 percent up to 40 percent for symptomatic people. 

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Additionally, 56 more people in Pima County died from COVID-19 this week, Cullen said.

Cullen urged that more people get their vaccinations, including shots for children 12-15, as well as masking and other public health measures. 

On Wednesday, Don Harrington, acting director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, wrote that data from November shows that people who are not vaccinated are 31.1 times as likely to die from COVID-19, and 4.9 times as likely to test positive for the disease, compared to those who were fully vaccinated. 

"If you remain undecided about getting the vaccine, the data makes a strong case for getting a lifesaving shot that can spare you from severe illness, long-haul COVID, and more," said Harrington. "It’s free, safe, widely available, and, as the evidence clearly shows, highly effective."

Cullen said around 64 percent of eligible Pima County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and around 75 percent of people in the county have received at least one dose.

Nationwide, around 62 percent of those eligible have been fully vaccinated, and nearly 68 million people have received not only both doses, but also a booster shot — or about 33 percent of those eligible for boosters.

While the overall rate is about 62 percent, that reflects the fact that children under 5 are not yet eligible to get their shots, and children 5-11 were only authorized to be vaccinated starting in November. Among adults 65 and older, the rate is significantly higher at nearly 88 percent, and among children under 18, nearly 73 percent have gotten shots. The overall percentage of those who've gotten boosters is much lower, with 58 percent of those 65 and older have gotten their boosters, but among children under 18, only around one-third have received boosters, according to the CDC.

Where to get booster shots

Before the federal approval this week, only those 16 and over were eligible to receive booster doses. The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for children as young as 5, and is the only booster shot available for 12-17-year-olds.

The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available to those 18 and over.

All three types of shots are available at multiple county-supported sites, including:

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  • Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave.
  • Abrams Public Health Center, 3950 S. County Club Rd.
  • Theresa Lee Health Center, 1493 W. Commerce Court
  • North Clinic, 3550 N. 1st Ave.

Check pima.gov/covid19vaccines for hours of operation and multiple mobile clinics each week that offer all of the vaccines and boosters. The vaccines are free. No appointment is needed at any of the county sites, although people are encouraged to call for appointments at the Theresa Lee and North clinics to avoid potential wait times.

All the vaccines also are widely available at pharmacies. Check for locations and appointments at vaccines.gov or the Arizona Department of Health Services.

CDC OKs boosters for kids 12-17

On Wednesday, advisors for the CDC recommended giving children 12 to 17 the Pfizer-BioNTech booster after the FDA cleared boosters two weeks ago. While the CDC had in December already recommended giving boosters to children under 17, especially for children with underlying health conditions, the shift means that millions of children can boost their immune system against the new Omicron variant.

Beginning in the last few days of December, COVID-19 cases have spiked across Arizona, rising to nearly 9,400 cases reported on Dec. 29. On Wednesday, there were 7,749 new cases of COVID-19 and 61 new deaths, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Thursday, there were 10,679 new reported infections, and 16 more reported deaths from the virus in Arizona.

Since the pandemic began in March 2020 at least 24,586 people have died from the novel coronavirus in Arizona. 

Officials have worried that cases were already unsustainably high, straining health-care workers and nearly overwhelming hospitals, and the data suggests that Omicron will dramatically increase the number of cases.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people went to the county's Abrams Public Health Center to get COVID-19 tests, and at one point the line wrapped around the building.

Cullen admitted that have been delays, but said did not believe that anyone that sought a test was turned away because tests were not available. She added that the county had one of the largest distributions of at-home tests in the country for its size, and that this was because of the "largess" of the federal government via the state, and Cullen added that Pima County officials "pushed on the state to ensure that we got the tests." 

She also noted that about 20 percent of people who tested positive with a take-home test reported their result to the county, a "surprising" result that was "higher than anticipated" Cullen said. This has meant that the county's data on positive cases is improved, and she said that county officials were working on case investigations to track down the spread of COVID-19. 

Despite this effort, Cullen admitted that test availability was "in a lull," but that county health officials are "doing everything" they could to make sure at-home tests will be available for free.

Cullen said that it remains important for people to wear masks, avoid crowded indoor spaces, stay home when they can, and wash their hands. Additionally, people should test themselves, or seek out tests if they're symptomatic, and or have been exposed to COVID. 

"Things are going to get better," Cullen said. "I promise. I do I really do. We'll celebrate at some point here."

TucsonSentinel.com’s Paul Ingram contributed to this report.

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