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After confusion, BP agents can get COVID-19 vaccine in Pima County

While Border Patrol agents and other members of the Department of Homeland Security were slated to receive COVID-19 vaccinations through the Veterans Administration, now Pima County officials have begun giving agents shots as part of the next priority group.

The move follows confusion among border and immigration enforcement officers about where and how they were to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Some showed up at vaccination sites here without appointments, officials said.

Earlier this year, the VA announced on Jan. 12 that it would begin administering COVID vaccines to "mission-essential personnel" at DHS, through an interagency agreement. Under the Economy Act, which authorizes federal agencies to provide services or supplies to other federal agencies on a reimbursable basis, trained VA medical professionals at certain VA medical centers began vaccinating DHS employees using DHS’s own vaccine allocations from the CDC.

This included the Phoenix VA Health Care System in Arizona. 

"This is a team effort to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible to protect our veterans and citizens from COVID-19," said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

However, agents were unclear about the program, and some agents sought vaccinations at a site operated by Tucson Medical Center.   

County officials considered the possibility of a problem back in December. In a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey, Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson and Cochise County Supervisor Ann English, the leaders of the Arizona Border Counties Coalition, requested more vaccine doses to deal with the challenges of being on the international boundary.

"We are pleased to hear that the state of Arizona has started vaccine allocations to each county in Arizona. We are eager to begin vaccinating our healthcare workers and essential workers, including teachers," they wrote. 

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"The border counties that include Cochise, Santa Cruz, Pima and Yuma, have vaccine needs that far exceed current supplies. Counties that share a border with Mexico have unique risks and exposure. Thus, we write to ask the state of Arizona to consider a higher vaccine allocation to meet the unusual demands in border counties," the two women wrote. 

"Vaccine allocations to counties based solely on resident population fails to recognize the increased risk from Mexico visitors and workers. In addition, Border counties are home to approximately 5,000 Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol officers," they wrote. "These officers, essential members of our community, are unique as they will compete for scarce vaccine allocations with other mandated 1B recipients in border counties." 

While Pima County has launched an aggressive plan to vaccinate most of the population that can be, or wants to be vaccinated, by the summer, Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, has said that the state needs to allocate more vaccines to Pima County. 

He noted that while the county remains first in the number of vaccines given out per its population, the county has received fewer vaccines than two recently set-up points-of-delivery, or PODS maintained by the state. And, Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county's health director, has said that the county needs more vaccines to accelerate vaccinations.

So far, Arizona has deployed more than 518,000 vaccines statewide, including 86,479 in Pima County. 

However, confusion about where to get the vaccine, and how to register to get the vaccine as part of the 1B priority, which covers teachers and educational workers, people over 75, and people in the protective services, led 250 police officers to show up without an appointment at Tucson Medical Center. 

In a Jan. 15 memo, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry noted that "over 250 police officers" showed up without an appointment at TMC. "To demonstrate how easy it is to introduce absolute chaos into the registration system, for whatever reason, our public law enforcement agencies took it upon themselves to decide they could obtain a vaccination without an appointment and show up at the Tucson Medical Center," Huckelberry wrote to the members of the Board of Supervisors. 

This included FBI agents, Pima County Sheriff's deputies, officers with the Tucson Police Department, as well as members of the courts and attorneys, he said. "TMC was kind enough to oblige these individuals who failed to observe expected protocols regarding registration."

"It is unfortunate these individuals failed to understand the importance of observing established protocols and inserted their registration above those who are more critical," Huckelberry wrote. "Hopefully, the conversations that I have had with the sheriff and others will resolve this problem. I have instructed TMC management and others to turn away anyone who is not properly and appropriately registered." 

However, other agents had been rebuffed by county officials. 

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"At first, Pima County said that agents would not be counted as law enforcement, so our union started to making calls," said Art del Cueto, a Douglas-area agent and the vice president for the National Border Patrol Council, the union for BP agents, so he reached out to Supervisor Steve Christy. 

On Jan. 22, Christy wrote in a letter to Pima County health officials and Huckelberry that local agents and officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection—Border Patrol's parent agency—were denied vaccinations "because the VA would be providing vaccines for Border Patrol employees." 

"The United States Border Patrol has over 1,000 active and deployed Border Patrol officers and agents residing and conducting operations in Pima County," Christy wrote. Agents, he said, are "exposed to numerous individuals potentially infected with the most dangerous and virulent forms of COVID-19 in 'hot spots' on a continual and daily basis," Christy said. After potential exposures, agents return home to their families, neighborhoods, and area businesses carrying with them the "very real and present dangers of COVID-19 infection and spread." 

"For Pima County to deny them vaccinations and assume without any verification or confirmation that USBP agents would be given 'taken care of' and inoculated by the Veterans Administration, and not our law enforcement community, is both irresponsible and dangerous for USBP personnel and our community," Christy wrote. 

"Agents are getting vaccinated now after I made several calls to people in leadership positions," del Cueto said, adding that Banner Health at the Tucson Convention Center has begun vaccinating BP agents as part of the law enforcement tier. "COVID-19 doesn't care what political party you come from, and we need bipartisan solutions to take care of this problem," he said. BP agents are dealing with "hundreds people who are coming through hot zones, and it makes sense that those agents are getting those vaccinations," he said. 

Even as Christy fumed, on Jan. 21, acting chief of the Tucson Sector Border Patrol John Modlin contacted Huckelberry, according to a memo Huckelberry wrote to the Board on Jan. 26. 

"I appreciated our introductory virtual meeting," Huckelberry wrote. "In the past, the cCounty has had an excellent relationship with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol leadership and we expect to continue that relationship." 

Huckelberry wrote that Modlin was under the impression that the Emergency Management Policy advisor for the governor would approve some extra help for Pima County to cover the agents, he "did not believe such has been conveyed to any of the individual supervisors who signed this letter." However, if "the governor indicates there are resources available to accomplish this, we would be happy to facilitate such." 

"In the meantime, federal Border Patrol agents fall into the system of vaccination priorities established by the Centers for Disease Control as members of protective service workers and are eligible to register for vaccination using the various electronic means for registering and receiving an appointment," Huckelberry wrote. 

Meanwhile, as the Biden administration presses hard to get as many vaccines out as possible, DHS officials have organized a new effort to vaccinate DHS employees. 

On January 21, 2021, President Biden released the National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, outlining a new plan to administer COVID-19 vaccinations across the United States to safely reopen schools, businesses, and travel, while protecting workers. This comprehensive plan begins with restoring public trust and mounting an aggressive, safe, equitable, and effective vaccination campaign.

In an email to DHS employees, the acting secretary David Pekoske wrote that as part of a strategy to "improve vaccination efforts across the country," the agency recognized that "our ability to meet our mission depends heavily upon our ability to ensure that our own workforce is vaccinated." 

"CBP  just  now decided they should vaccinate their employees. Most of which are in contact with the general public every damn day," wrote a DHS employee. "This is the first email we’ve received about vaccines for us." 

As part of this effort,  Pekoske announced Operation Vaccinate Our Workforce, or Operation VOW to "accelerate the administration of vaccines across the DHS workforce."

"Operation VOW will be led by the Department’s new chief medical officer, Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, who will report directly to me and brings with him significant experience managing complex public health planning efforts, including those related to COVID-19," Pekoske said. 

Gandhi and Operation VOW will "pursue both new and existing pathways to identify vaccine allocation for our workforce," and "ensure that all DHS personnel who want a vaccination are in the pipeline to receive one as soon as possible, beginning with our frontline and public facing employees, and in accordance with CDC guidelines." 

The group will work with the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services to get more vaccines to federal officials, Pekoske said. 

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"Operation VOW supersedes all previously established vaccination teams or groups," Pekoske added. 

"In the coming days, you will hear more from Dr. Gandhi on the planning and progress of Operation VOW," he said. "In the meantime, it remains critically important to wear a mask, maintain physical distance, and – if you are in a telework eligible position – work remotely unless it is mission critical for you to be in the workplace." 

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COVID-19 vaccinations at the walk-in clinic at Tucson Medical Center on Jan. 15, 2021.

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