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What the Devil won't tell you

Arizona's sealed lips about COVID vaccine hoarding muck up Pima County's effort

OK, a couple things about the coronavirus vaccine rollout.

Good communications with the public are vital to coordinating an effective vaccination program. I think we can all agree on that. County leaders need to know how many doses they are going to get so they can plan how to get it to the people.

The people who might want to know things. They want to know when they can make an appointment. They want to know if they do make a sign up for a vaccination, the needle will go in the arm.

The state is suddenly throttling back Pima County’s vaccine delivery by 40 percent, and not explaining jams a log into the spokes of public confidence.

Now the county can’t expand it’s delivery of doses.

People who read about it, may just decide that they won’t bother signing up for the vaccine because they don’t want to go through the hassle of getting to the right place at the prescribed time, just to find out there’s no vial for their arm.

Pima County Health Director Theresa Cullen said during a press conference Friday that the state rollback has left the county with “razor thin” margins. The county talks with the state health department about a variety of issues. However, dosage capacity continues to have transparency issues, Cullen said.

"We are now at razor thin margins," Cullen said. "We are able to accommodate what we can accommodate."

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What they can't accommodate is apparently up to the whimsy of upstream forces as explained by the state.

What is this? Forever Feb. 2? Are we back in the nettlesome Groundhog Day of never knowing which government further up the hose is going to screw the people at the end of it?

Regular humans don't make huge distinctions between county, state and federal responsibilities. The expect all government to push when time comes to shove.

Good news, bad news

Good news: If you have made an appointment, you can keep the appointment. The cuts will only effect expansions.

Bad news: A big push for the county’s expansion was to address racial equity concerns the county has about who is getting the shots and what color the skin is (or is not) that the needle is puncturing.

More bad news: If the county loses anything else those razor thin margin will leave people with vaccine appointments on the outs. 

The state did have a plan to set up a new vaccination center at the Rillito Racetrack. I’m not sure what’s happening with that because the state isn’t answering questions.

There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation. If so, then the explanation should be reasonably explained.

Instead we get darkness.

How it should have gone

The right way to roll this out is for the state to get on the horn/webz (weather permitting) with the county and have a talk Wednesday afternoon

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I think it should have gone like this:

“Our goal is to safely vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, and we have been ramping up our vaccination efforts across the state. The current limitation on vaccine administration in Arizona is the number of doses made available by the federal government. The number of doses we're receiving impacts all of our local allocators, including Pima County.

"We have asked the federal government for an increased vaccine allocation, but this has not yet occurred. We are hopeful that the allocation will grow in the coming weeks. While the Pfizer shipments have been more consistent week to week, the Moderna allocation has been especially prone to weekly variance."

There's a reason I chose those words. That was the gist of the email I got back from Holly Poynter of the Arizona Department of Health Services at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday. Because if you really want people to have the information front-and-center, put it out at 7:30 on a Friday night.

It would have been nice if they provided Cullen with the transparency she needs to do her job.

Although, props to Poynter for sticking around until after normal business hours to get that information to me. Fortunately, Team Sentinel didn't edit the this column right away or it would have been up and read without that info.

Her bosses should be telling the county, and the public, this stuff as they find out.

That’s what running a government like a business looks like. No business in the age of “just-in-time” supply chain management tells its sales team: “Production has been cut in half. Nothing further to report.”

The state had to anticipate the headline the news would create and people who just read headlines (aka 90 percent of the population) would think to themselves: “This is a cluster; I’m not gonna bother.”

But even if they read the stories and the headline (and please do), they would get no further explanation, until Friday.

Let the speculation begin

So, in the vacuum of information, Arizonans are left to draw their own conclusions.

We in Pima County are constantly feuding with the state government and the Legislature. Tucson is Democratic. The state has been Republican. How many found out the vaccine was ratcheted back without explanation and just assumed it was Phoenix dicking Tucson over again (because that's what Phoenix does)?

Do people need more reason to think the state is flubbing vaccine equity on purpose to get a leg up with Republican voters? Golly, why would Latinos and others of various color ever think that?

Poynter seems to be suggesting there's a problem with the feds.

There may be some short term political upside to that but there's nothing but downside over time.

People need to have confidence if we are going to get through this ahead of mutating variants.

It's kinda like my restaurant days. We used to say that the problem is never with the kitchen, even if the problem was 158 percent the kitchen. 

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Patrons forgive a personal screw up by the wait staff. If the kitchen is a problem, the restaurant is no good.

The whole supply chain is one thing. People have to believe in all of it.

Deep breath

If we were to draw out the coverage of the D-Day landing so every minute was a news cycle, America would have gotten a year’s worth of nightmarish dispatches in a single morning. That didn’t happen. By the next day, what the people of the world knew was that the allies had successfully established a beachhead.

Stuff is always going to get screwed up with something as big and complex as getting 280 million people vaccinated in six to eight months months. Looking back 20 years from now, we won’t remember the hiccups if the plan is successful.

It’s not necessarily cause for panic. We’re America goddamnit and we have a 250-year history of more or less getting things done. I said “more or less,” Team Woke.

On the other hand, there are aspects about America that make it a challenge.

Our health care system has been built for profit or on nonprofit models expected to operate like a business. The system is built to adapt and innovate as a series of self-contained independent units selling a service. It’s not built to draw up into a single shield wall against a single outside threat.

The federalist system empowers states to operate independently. Experimentation can happen this way. On the other hand, we don’t have a unified command structure.

We have a streak of wild independence and believe in personal autonomy. The downside of that is we have a significant number of the population with zero sense of “a greater good” and who may see any suggestion of a national imperative as an existential threat. Yes, these are the same people who call themselves nationalists but no matter.

The analogy here isn’t the moonshot. The Apollo program’s greatest success may have been overcoming the the tyranny of the low bidder. Thousands of contractors delivered millions of components to be assembled on a launch pad. Yet the contractors clocked out at 5 p.m. to go home and watch Walter Cronkite.

The better analogy is World War II. In 1941, America was nowhere on the map as far as military preparedness. By June 1944, the U.S. was leading the most massive seaborne invasion in the history of the world.

Try thinking of it like this. If today were D-Day, Pearl Harbor would have been three and a half years ago. Remember Helsinki? In that time between then and now, we went from nowhere near ready to fight a war to building every facet, sprocket and widget required to send 12 million troops over land, through the air and across the sea. The U.S. deficit in 1943 alone would have been $7.5 trillion based in proportion to revenue, followed by two years of $4 trillion deficits, even as federal tax revenues tripled.

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That’s insane.

That’s what we can do. But we don’t do it with a bunch of turf wars, not-my-problem-isms and best of five in games in a tournament of “you’re not the boss of me!”

Get your act together people. Lives depend on it.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.


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Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic | Pool photo

The state government is playing God with the COVID vaccine. Devilish columnist says, 'It's not good.' (Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ (right) give an update on the COVID-19 pandemic response during an April 14, 2020, press conference.)

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