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Ducey orders vaccine speed-up, pulls control from counties

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered the Department of Health Services on Wednesday to create a "state-directed" model for delivery of vaccines, overriding the plans of the counties throughout the state.

The executive order will shift vaccinations from county-set implementation plans, to a single "state-directed allocation model" run by ADHS to "ensure a uniform approach to the vaccination of high-risk and high-priority Arizonans."

Pima County officials told TucsonSentinel.com on Wednesday afternoon that they were reviewing the order, and could not comment on its specifics yet.

"Across the country, news of delays in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine are being reported," Ducey said. "While Arizona has avoided many of these issues, any delay in shots being given to Arizonans is unacceptable. The development of the vaccine was called Operation Warp Speed, and the distribution of the vaccine should follow that same sense of urgency." 

"Today, I’m issuing an executive order that requires the Department of Health Services to proceed at the same speed to increase access and ensure rapid distribution," he said. "Any delay in the vaccine getting to Arizonans, any dose that sits in a freezer rather than reaching the arm of a health care worker or long-term care resident, carries too great a cost." 

"This is a health emergency, and we need all levels of government and our health system operating as such," Ducey said. "Vaccines don’t do any good sitting in a freezer." 

The move comes as Pima County officials posted "grim and disheartening numbers" for COVID-19. 

The novel coronavirus has infected more than 19 million people in the U.S., and killed 329,605 people, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project. Nationwide, nearly 125,000 people are currently hospitalized, and nearly 23,000 people are in intensive-care units nationwide. In Arizona, more than 512,000 people have been sickened by the virus since March, and 8,718 people have died, said state health officials. On Wednesday, 78 people were reported dead, and the state added 5,267 cases. 

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The rate of fatalities in Arizona due to COVID-19 is more than 1 person for every 1,000, state data shows. 

Ducey ordered state officials to begin reporting daily on county-by-county vaccine counts, to provide "full transparency for the public on the distribution of the vaccine across the state." County health departments are also required to tell state health officials when they're moving to the next phase of vaccine distribution within 24 hours. 

"This will ensure that Arizonans have quick access to information to make informed decisions about their health and the health of their loved ones," the governor's office said. 

Ducey's executive order is based on March's declaration of a public health state of of emergency in Arizona, "due to the necessity to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19." 

The order allows ADHS to "take possession of any vaccine allocation and reallocate it to provide statewide coverage for rapid distribution and administration." Meanwhile, "private vaccination distribution" sites can only be established after consultation, with state officials, Ducey said. 

Pima County officials said that since Dec. 17, when vaccinations began at Tucson Medical Center and Banner University Medical Center North Campus, through Monday, Dec. 28, 10,773 people have received vaccinations here. 

"On a daily basis, we're giving about 1,000 vaccinations on average," said Dr. Theresa Cullen, public health director for Pima County, during a press call on Wednesday.

While vaccines are being administered to doctors, nurses and EMS workers, it will be weeks yet before the rollout of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines here reaches the elderly people who were bumped up the list this week — and months before there are enough doses of the vaccines manufactured and distributed. 

The county has 44,525 doses allocated, and 29,050 of those doses have arrived, officials said.

The continuing wave of new COVID cases means hospitals across Arizona remained under strain taxed. Tuesday, many Phoenix-area medical centers were forced to send ambulances elsewhere. In Tucson on Wednesday, there were 55 COVID-positive patients at hospitals who were waiting for beds to open up, along with more than 30 patients needing treatment for non-coronavirus reasons who were forced to wait for beds, Pima County officials said.

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Local health officials are "walking a fine line between wanting the public to be aware that this is a crisis" and discouraging people from going to the emergency room when necessary, said Cullen. 

"We're working as fast we can to get the county's allotment of the COVID-19 vaccines out to our vaccination partners, who are giving shots to the Priority 1A group, starting with health care workers who have the highest-risk exposure to COVID-19," said county officials. On Tuesday, officials said that Arizona residents who are aged 75 and older have been moved up the priority list to get the coronavirus vaccine. 

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.

"It is possible, we will overrun the health care system," Cullen warned. 

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.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey during a press conference at the University of Arizona campus in mid-March.