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Pima County plans to give 100k COVID booster shots per month

Delta now 100% of new local coronavirus cases, as vaccination rate grows slowly

Pima County health officials plan to deliver more than 100,000 COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots per month, they said Friday, as federal guidance for third shots comes out. The county was also noted in a study about the effectiveness of face masks in K-12 schools released the same day by the Centers for Disease Control.

Some local pharmacies announced that they'll begin delivering booster shots Friday under the new guidelines. Pima officials said the county is prepared to ramp up vaccinations starting Monday at their three standing vaccination clinics and a site at the Abrams Public Health Center. The county has not yet decided if it will set up large-scale drive-through vaccination sites, like those used last spring.

Seniors older than 65 and people living in institutional settings should get a booster shot if they've had the Pfizer vaccine, CDC officials said. People older than 50 with underlying health conditions should also get a booster shot. Younger people with medical conditions can opt to get a booster, as can people who have jobs that put them at greater risk for exposure to the virus, federal officials said.

Arizona reported 2,998 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and 10 deaths. Pima County had 375 cases and one death. The county has had 133,000 cases of infection and more than 2,600 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The state is seeing a slow but steady decrease in weekly new cases since the Delta variant created a new surge in COVID infections and hospitalization just as schools were returning to in-person classes in August and early September.

Pima County, however, has been an area of “high” community transmission since early August, according to the CDC, meaning that it has more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. The rate for Pima County on Friday was 166 per 100,000. Every county in Arizona is also still experiencing high transmission.

Based on sequence testing, 100 percent of COVID being transmitted here is now Delta, county health officials said.

About 66 percent of the vaccine-eligible population in the county, which is anyone older than 12, is fully vaccinated. This is the same number that were vaccinated last week, as county health officials have said the rate is climbing by .1 percent each day. Three-quarters of the vaccine-eligible population has at least one dose. Of the total population, 57 percent are fully vaccinated.

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The Health Department has declared 76 outbreaks so far and has told over 8,000 students in the county to quarantine, something that the county has said it “doesn’t do lightly” as it tries to avoid removing kids from classrooms.

Last week, there were 2,013 school-reported cases from 247 schools across the county, chief medical officer Dr. Francisco Garcia said. About 88 percent of those cases were children while 44 percent were children under 12 years old.

Dr. Theresa Cullen, the director of the Pima County Health Department, said that by Monday, the county expects to start delivering 100,000 vaccine booster shots per month. This will come on top of the 9,000 weekly vaccine shots that she said the county is currently delivering, which includes first and second doses.

“COVID continues to be a disease of primarily the unvaccinated,” she told reporters Friday. “Our county… is still with a major commitment to make sure people who are not immunized or partially immunized achieve their series. At the same time, we are responding rapidly to the need for boosters.”

Cullen slipped at one point, stating that the county's plans were for a weekly rate of 100,000 shots, not monthly.

Unvaccinated COVID patients make up as much as 90-95 percent of COVID hospitalizations, county health officials said.

Booster shots

Late Thursday night, the CDC Director Rochelle Walensky issued guidance on who "should" and "may" receive the Pfizer booster shot to increase their resistance to COVID.

Boosters for the vaccines from Moderna and Johnson and Johnson have yet to receive approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Cullen said a review is already underway and that the assumption by the county is that those two will receive approval.

Boosters have to be given consistent with initial vaccines. Cullen said that they can’t be mixed and matched “like a wardrobe.”

The CDC guidance includes two “shoulds” for people who should get the shot to hold up their COVID immunity, and “mays” for people who could benefit from having it but for whom it is not critical.

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People 65 years and older and residents in long-term care settings should receive a booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine, at least 6 months after they were fully vaccinated. People 50–64 years old with underlying medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes or HIV should also receive a booster shot at least 6 months after being fully vaccinated.

The two “mays” include younger groups. People 18–49 with underlying medical conditions may receive a booster shot vaccine, again at least 6 months after their initial full vaccination, and the same applies to people 18-64 who are at increased risk for COVID because of their jobs.

Both of those groups should consider their individual benefits and risks of getting a booster shot, the CDC said.

Anyone seeking a booster shot with pharmacies can do so by finding which ones offer Pfizer vaccines through vaccines.gov, but Cullen said someone would have to check whether the pharmacy also has boosters available.

Local pharmacies at Walgreens and CVS say they take walk-ins, Cullen said, but she advised that people make appointments if they can, to avoid having crowds at pharmacies. Starting Saturday, those locations will have registration available, she said.

Cullen said that the county also expects every other health care provider in the county that has been delivering vaccines to “quickly flex” to also be able to deliver boosters.

“People will still have to seek out a (booster),” she said. “Especially if they want to schedule it, and it will require multiple clicks.”

Clinics in the county are already strained by treating COVID patients and delivering vaccines, Cullen said, and the county will rely heavily on local pharmacies to deliver a large number of the booster shots.

“The clinical system is stretched,” she said. “So to ask the clinical system to stand up large points of distribution seems to fly in the face of what we want the clinical system to do, which is provide clinical care.”

The county clinics and its vaccination site at Abrams are expected to provide 60,000 of the 100,000 weekly booster shots that the county wants to deliver. Local pharmacies are also adding staff to help deliver vaccines and boosters.

By Monday, the county will also have made a decision about whether it will stand up larger vaccination sites, Cullen said.

Hospital beds still limited

ICU bed availability in the county has been scarce, with barely more than a dozen having been available at any time during the past month, and usually close to a quarter of the occupied beds are being used by COVID patients.

As of last Friday, there were 20 ICU beds available, 23 percent of which were being used for COVID patients. Cullen said ICU bed availability remains at less than 5 percent, or at most 18 out of the total 360 ICU beds.

Hospitals are also reporting delayed "off-boarding," Cullen said, with ambulances having to wait to take patients into a hospital when they arrive. Rural hospitals in Southern Arizona have also been reporting difficulty in transferring patients to higher levels of care, which, locally, almost always means to Tucson hospitals.

Staffing shortages are straining hospitals' ability to operate at maximum capacity, Cullen said. Gov. Doug Ducey has appropriated $60 million dollars to help hospitals find additional staffing. Cullen said the county expects that money to bring new staffing to Tucson-based facilities within the next two to three weeks.

A previous version of this story included a misstatement by Cullen about how quickly the Pima County Health Department planned to deliver booster shots.


Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Dr. Theresa Cullen, the Pima County Health Director (pictured in this May file photo), talked to reporters on Friday about the county's plan to start administering 100,000 COVID vaccine and booster shots starting Monday.