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Arizona to expand UA COVID vaccination site, increasing capacity to 6k daily doses

The University of Arizona will serve as Southern Arizona's first 24-7 vaccination site, as part of a partnership between state and local officials that will expand the location's capacity sixfold beginning February 18. 

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Health Services announced the plan Wednesday, saying that state Department of Emergency and Military Affairs would partner with the UA and Pima County's Health Department to increase the capacity and hours of operation at the existing university site.

Ducey said that the UA site, located on the university's Mall, had a "proven record of success in vaccinating students, faculty and staff." 

The effort will increase capacity from about 1,000 vaccinations a day to as many as 6,000 per day, state officials said. But it's not clear if the plan will come with an increase in overall available doses in Pima County.

Pima County officials said they were "thrilled to learn" that the state would be expanding the vaccination site at the UA, increasing vaccine delivery capacity in the county and Southern Arizona.

However, Pima officials also said they had "reservations" about the site, questioning whether the expanded effort at the UA will include more vaccine doses after the state cut Pima County's allocation by 40 percent, last week, forcing the county to cut some vaccination efforts at community health centers this week. 

People in prioritized vaccination groups can begin registering online for appointments at the UA site at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 16. Those without computer access or needing extra help registering can call 1-844-542-8201 for assistance.

"The UA has been a wonderful partner with the county and the UA POD has been highly efficient, delivering more than 8,000 vaccines since it opened January 20,” said Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson. "If this means there will be an increase in the number of vaccines coming to Pima County, then we will get more people vaccinated faster and get closer to bringing this terrible pandemic to end in Southern Arizona. And if that is the case, I heartily thank Gov. Ducey for this assistance." 

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Pima County operates five vaccination sites, or "points of delivery" (PODs), in the county and had planned for a vaccination site at Rillito Park that would be a 24-7 operation. County officials said that they have the capacity for about 10,000 vaccinations per day with "sufficient supply," and just last week, on February 4, the county hit a record number of vaccinations, giving out nearly 9,000 vaccination doses, including 1,000 from the UA site.

Since December 14, Pima County has given out about 166,382 doses, including more than 133,000 first doses. And, the county has fully vaccinated about 32,000 people.

As Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, put it vaccination efforts have covered about 15 percent of the county. "No vaccines doses are sitting around, or squirreled away," he said, and the county had worked to distribute an "amazing level" of doses.

Pima officials say county needs more vaccine doses

On Monday, Garcia said that there was a potential plan for a site at the UA, but that such an effort needed to come with additional vaccines from the state and federal level.

"We believe we need a larger piece; we cannot keep slicing down the existing pie into smaller and smaller slices," he said.

Pima County is in Phase 1B.1 of its vaccination plan, and is currently working to inoculate people who are 70 and older, law enforcement personnel, educators and child-care providers. With an increased supply of vaccinations and the UA site, the county could forge ahead on its accelerated plan, and open up the next priority group, allowing people between the ages of 65 and 69 early to begin registering for appointments as early as next week. 

The county hopes to have 300,000 people vaccinated by March. 

"We’re well ahead of that pace so far and with more vaccine and more capacity at the state’s POD at the UA, we could get there by the beginning of March instead of the end," said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the director of the Pima County Health Department.

The UA is switching from the county's vaccination registration system to the state's sign-up system, UA President Robert Robbins told reporters Wednesday.

Robbins dodged questions about whether there will be more total doses allocated to Pima County with the expansion of the university location. Nor did he clarify whether the plan would come with additional personnel or funding, compared to the previous vaccination efforts in the county.

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"It makes sense to me that we'd get higher allocations," Robbins said, adding that the federal government is a "gating factor" for vaccine availability.

"We've got a supply problem and I'm concerned about it," he said, adding that if the UA site runs seven days a week, it would need around 50,000 weekly doses just for that site. He added that the county has previously been given just 30,000 doses per week, so "the state has got to dramatically increase this to build this out."

"All we're trying to do is get as many people vaccinated as fast as we can," he said.

In recent weeks, state officials have focused on two state-run vaccination sites in the Phoenix area. Based at stadiums in Maricopa County, the state has delivered about 204,000 vaccines, including about nearly 174,000 first doses and fully vaccinating around 35,000 people, at the two sites. 

"Our state vaccination sites at State Farm Stadium and Phoenix Municipal Stadium have been instrumental in Arizona’s work to vaccinate people quickly, efficiently and safely," Ducey said. "We’re thrilled to partner with the University of Arizona and the Pima County Health Department to open a site in Southern Arizona and rapidly expand vaccine distribution." 

"The demand for vaccine doses is high, and Arizonans have made it clear they want it," Ducey said in a news release from his office. "We are working hard to secure more doses from the federal government and partner with private and public organizations to get the vaccine out and protect Arizonans." 

Ducey thanked UA's Robbins and "everyone involved for their work to partner on this vaccination site."

"As we began these discussions we said we're happy to do this, but we need incremental vaccines to come," Robbins told reporters. "We want to creative, not dilutive."

"I believe and I'm confident that the increased production from both Moderna and Pfizer will result in an increase in nationwide of vaccines, and we'll get our proportionate share of those vaccines," Robbins said, in response to a direct question of whether the UA site is getting additional vaccines.

The announcement came as the state hit a major milestone, having distributed 1 million vaccination doses. 

"But there’s more work to be done," Ducey added. "Arizonans are eager to get the vaccine, and we’re committed to distributing it safely and efficiently. We will continue to work with our private and public partners to quickly distribute the vaccine, and with the federal government to secure the doses we need to protect Arizona."

"It’s great news that another large site will be set up, this time in Southern Arizona," said U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. "The demand for vaccines is high, and it’s imperative the state continues to work towards a speedy and fair distribution. The UA site and partnership with Pima County is a step in the right direction. Ultimately, it will only be successful if we get the resources and vaccines to meet the needs of Southern Arizonans, especially those of vulnerable populations. I’m committed to supporting this effort in the best way possible."

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry "welcomed" the news, but said that he had a "reservation" about the plan. 

"My primary reservation about today’s news is that the expanded University of Arizona vaccination center also includes expanded vaccine supply,” Huckelberry said. "We have been very successful with our vaccine delivery in Pima County and we have about 130,000 people who will need their second dose of vaccine over the next four weeks, and that’s on top of the need to continue to deliver thousands of first doses a day so we continue to make progress stopping the spread of the virus." 

Over the last few weeks, county officials and Arizona Department of Health Services have been negotiating over a 24-7 site based on Rillito Park. On Jan. 26,  the county sent a letter to Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ "welcoming state assistance in the County’s vaccination efforts," county officials said. 

"Additionally, while the county’s large vaccination centers have been very efficient at delivering vaccines to people who have the resources and wherewithal to sign up for them, we need to make sure we’re being equitable and vaccinating people with transportation difficulties or who are homebound, or who don’t have the technology needed to get appointments," said Huckelberry. 

"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," he said. 

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Arlene S Islas/University of Arizona

The UA will expand its drive-thru vaccination clinic beginning Feb. 18 with help from the state's Department of Emergency and Military Affairs.

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