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'Out of the blue,' Arizona adds 4,600 COVID vaccine doses to slashed Pima supply

Doses allow restoration of appointments next week

After telling Pima County officials that they would receive just 12,500 doses of COVID-19 vaccines over the next week, state officials added an additional 4,600 doses on Friday, allowing the county to preserve or reschedule most appointments slated for next week. 

However, local officials said that about 9 percent of these appointments, or about 450 of the 5,000 appointments that were cancelled, will still be postponed, and that the county will still hold off making new appointments for first vaccine doses. 

The state's announcement means the county will have about 17,100 doses of the Moderna vaccine to administer next week.

Arizona state officials have cut back Pima's weekly vaccine supply this month by half or more, after providing nearly 30,000 weekly doses at the end of January.

County officials have said in previous weeks they were operating on "razor thin margins" because of the cutbacks. And, now the shipment that should have arrived this week has been delayed because of a winter storm hammering the eastern United States, freezing Texas and the Midwest.

On Thursday, Pima County officials said they were canceling appointments on Friday, and were postponing two mobile vaccination clinics slated for Saturday, after state officials said the county would receive the lowest total of weekly doses in 10 weeks. This comes after dwindling supplies week after week, as state officials restricted the county's supplies from a height of 29,850 doses on Jan. 30 to just 16,300 doses slated for this week.

Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county's Health Department Director, said during a press call Friday that because of the state's reduction of vaccine doses, the county was projecting that they would also have to cancel 4,800 vaccine appointments next week. "That was not due to the weather, that was due to the decrease in the size of the shipment that we got from Moderna. We have recovered almost all of that," she said, because they are receiving the additional 4,600 doses.

"What we tried to do was keep everyone as whole as we could," Cullen said. "And, what that means is that we were moving vaccine around, and we're grateful to our on-board partners." Cullen said that the county tried to maintain appointments for an entire day at one location to minimize confusion. "So what you saw was some cancellations," she said.

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Cancelled appointments affected several sites, including Tucson Medical Center, and the vaccine clinic at the Tucson Convention Center. 

The sites that were affected used the Moderna vaccine, while a few sites that had been inoculating people with the Pfizer vaccine were unaffected by the shipment delay, Cullen said.

Meanwhile, around 1,500 to 2,000 appointments were canceled this week because of the weather, but that majority of those have been "sprinkled" into different days, she said. The county was expecting the delayed doses by as late as Wednesday because the shipment was currently held up in Memphis, Tenn. 

"The caveat to all of this, is we thought that vaccines would come tomorrow, we now know it's not, but we don't know next week when it will be here, and this is important because we know now that there are additional cancellations that may be needed if that vaccine does not get here," she said.

"I don't know what the situation will be on the ground with the weather," Cullen said. 

County officials have complained in weeks past that the state's allocation of vaccinations is a "black box," and Cullen noted that this issue remains important, especially as the county faces dwindling supplies of the vaccine. 

"If we had known last week—or say today, we knew for this coming week—we're only going to have 12,000 doses we would already be working with our on-boarders and facilities, and with our communities and let them know that expectation. Because I feel like that now, it's just whiplash, we're saying one thing and today I'm telling you, 'well, we got 4,600 doses.' It would appear out the blue, but nobody made vaccine in the last 24 hours." 

Cullen said that "somewhat fortuitously" county officials now know how many doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine come to the state because the CDC now provides health officials a spreadsheet showing that data.

"We just got access to that last week," Cullen said. 

Pima County officials also said that last week 1,000 vaccines earmarked for the county were given directly to the new state-run point-of-delivery site for vaccinations at the University of Arizona. 

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"I don't have true insight into this," she said. "The state made the decision to protect the vaccine at the university, so they can get all the doses they needed delivered."

"Obviously, we need more vaccine," she said.

On Thursday, Dr. Cara Christ, the head of the state Department of Health Services, held an afternoon press conference about the state takeover of the University of Arizona vaccination site, and said that the state was allocating vaccines based on the population each county had of people in the priority categories. Pima County has about 14 percent of the number of people in 1B, Christ said, and because Pima and Maricopa had the large state-run vaccination sites, which were getting the Pfizer vaccine, the remaining vaccination sites are getting Moderna.

Christ also said that the state was aiming to open state-run vaccination sites in Yuma and Coconino counties, though she didn't have a timeline of when those sites would open. "We anticipate getting level supply in the next four weeks," Christ said, and the state expected to increase supplies based on population. "So, we'll keep appointments about the same, but we wouldn't be pulling additional vaccine. As we get more, it wouldn't impact the counties as much," Christ said. 

In a similar vein, the county prepared to end COVID-19 testing because of state officials have so far refused to reimburse the county for millions in expenses, however, on Friday morning, state officials announced they would give out $100 million to counties, and Pima County will receive about $14.4 million based on its population. However, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said that the county expected to spend up to $41 million over the next several months.

Even as the county struggles to vaccinate thousands of Pima County residents, officials said while cases and the rate of positive test "remain high," the Health Department is "seeing an improvement on two indicators tracked" on the county's COVID-19 Progress Report. For the first time in weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases declined, and timely case investigation moved from yellow or "needs progress" to green, the county said. 

Fewer people are visiting local hospitals with COVD-19 symptoms, the county said. And, the change in timely case investigation shows that people testing positive are answering the call from the Health Department to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"These are just two indications that Pima County is making progress against COVID-19," county officials It remains crucial that anyone living, working, or traveling through Pima County continue to followed layered mitigation," the county said, adding that people should continue to wear masks, wash their hands frequently, continue physical distancing and stay home if they feel sick.  

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A volunteer at the University of Arizona vaccination site hands paperwork back to someone in line to receive the vaccine.