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Arizonans 75 & older bumped up COVID vaccine waiting list

Arizona residents who are aged 75 and older have been moved up the priority list to get the coronavirus vaccine, officials announced Tuesday, as some hospitals in the state reported being overwhelmed to the point of diverting ambulances.

The vaccine move, which follows a shift in recommendations by federal officials, means many elderly Arizonans will now be in "Phase 1B" of the state's vaccination rollout. The move is intended to help keep already swamped hospitals across the state from being overwhelmed by severely ill patients, officials said.

They join teachers and child-care workers, and many law enforcement and other "protective services workers" in what will be the second phase of vaccinations given in the state. Health care providers who work directly with COVID-19 patients are being prioritized in the first group of those vaccinated here, with emergency service workers (paramedics) and residents and staff of long-term care centers, including nursing homes, also being in Phase 1A.

In Pima County on Monday, there were just 33 "medical/surgical" beds available, with only 9 intensive care beds open — after the addition of 20 ICU beds the previous week. There were 96 patients waiting for inpatient beds, with 62 of them COVID patients, the Pima County Health Department said.

In the Phoenix area, six hospitals were "actively diverting" patients, being shut down to ambulances and transfers from other hospitals because of the overload of patients. Monday, 10 Phoenix-area hospitals were diverting patients at some point, according to Banner Health representatives.

"The recommendation by the Arizona Vaccine and Antiviral Prioritization Advisory Committee (VAPAC) is intended to protect those who are most at risk for severe outcomes due to COVID-19, such as hospitalization and death, and to reduce strain on Arizona’s hospitals. Older Arizonans are far more likely to experience severe COVID-19 complications and be hospitalized than younger individuals," said a news release from Gov. Doug Ducey's office.

People 75 and older are eight times more likely to be hospitalized and 220 times more likely to die compared to younger adults, with even greater risks for those 85 and older, said Ducey's office, referring to CDC data.

"We have seen the devastating effects COVID-19 has had on our communities," said Dr. Cara Christ, director of the state Department of Health Services. "Prioritizing those 75 and older in the next phase of vaccinations will protect those at even greater risk while helping preserve hospital capacity."

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Despite the shift in the priority list, elderly Arizonans will likely have to wait weeks more before receiving the coronavirus vaccine.

The state Department of Health Services "anticipates moving into prioritized phase 1B mid-to late January statewide. Some counties may move into this phase earlier," officials said.

Banner representatives and other hospitals have been pleading with people to stay at home as much as possible, as well as wear masks and physically distance when they must leave.

"We would ask that all those in the community do their part to help Arizona hospitals and health systems as we manage this COVID-19 surge. Do not gather. Shrink your circle to include only those you live with. Wear a mask at all times when around those who are not part of your circle," Banner said Tuesday. "We need every Arizonan to help us in this fight against COVID-19. In addition, if you are experiencing a life-threatening medical event, please do not delay care. It is important that everyone experiencing a medical event be evaluated by a health care professional who will determine what level of care is needed."

"One of Arizona's top priorities since the start of the pandemic has been to protect our most vulnerable," said Ducey. "This updated prioritization will get older Arizonans vaccinated sooner, further protecting those most at-risk and relieving the strain on our hardworking health care professionals. My thanks to the trained vaccinators across the state working to mitigate the spread of the virus and protect Arizonans."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Sayea Jenabzadeh, a nurse anesthetist at Banner Health, winces as she receives her vaccine at Banner Health University Medical Center North, on the first day of vaccine injections at the Tucson facility, Dec. 17.