Pima County is expected to receive 11,000 doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 Pfizer on Thursday that will go to healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents and staff, the Pima County Health Department announced at a news conference this morning.
The vaccine prioritization plan includes three phases with the most high-risk individuals receiving the vaccine first, said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department.
Phase one of vaccine implementation is divided into three groups: 1A, 1B and 1C. Group 1A will begin receiving vaccines this week.
Group 1B, which includes teachers, law enforcement and other essential service workers, are expected to receive vaccines by March, Cullen said.
Group 1C includes adults older than 65 and those with high-risk medical conditions, which contains nearly 70% of the population and is expected to receive vaccinations by “late spring, early summer,” according to Cullen.
The Pfizer vaccine is given in two doses 21 days apart. The health department said if the second dose is not received on its scheduled time, the first dose will still be valid and the recipient is still fully protected.
According to Cullen, the state is holding back the second dose for now but has ensured that those who receive the first dose will receive their second one. However, she said this could cause “a longer time period before we complete immunization of healthcare workers.”
Tucson Medical Center and Banner University Medical Center will serve as “points of distribution,” or PODs, where the first group of healthcare workers will receive the vaccine in drive-thru sites starting Thursday, Dec. 17.
The estimated number of healthcare workers in group 1A is about 67,000, which would require 134,000 vaccines to treat the group with two doses, according to the health department’s Logistics Section Chief Spencer Graves.
Graves said the hospitals’ abilities to store the Pfizer vaccine at the necessary negative 70 degrees and manage PPE made them ideal locations for the rollout of the vaccine.
“Going forward, we're going to be starting slow . . . we want to crawl before we walk and before we run full speed,” Graves said. “We're going to be starting slow (on Dec. 17) with TMC and Banner, and then going forward after that, we'll increase the capacity up to full probably in three to four weeks once we know that our process is working and we can ensure as much throughput as possible, but also maintain safety.”
Those in long-term care facilities won't have to leave and will be vaccinated on-site through a partnership with CVS and Walgreens. According to the health department’s Vaccine Preventable Disease Program Manager Crystal Rambaud, this is a separate vaccine allocation that doesn’t go through the county and will happen concurrently with the vaccinations of healthcare workers.
Although the county anticipates receiving more doses through the month, the distribution depends on federal and state government allocations.
If the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine receives proper emergency use authorization through the FDA, the county expects to receive it around Dec. 21-23, Cullen said.
“We have been told to anticipate receipt of additional vaccine, both Pfizer and Moderna, throughout the rest of this month. I would recall for people it is a holiday month, so we don't know if that will have any implications in terms of when we get delivery. However, based on what we know will come in December, we are only looking at 1A for December and we believe that will probably extend into the March period. “
To determine who will receive the vaccine first, the health department worked with an ethics committee and the federal and state governments.
“There's an algorithm that was developed by the CDC and then reviewed by the state that prioritizes health care workers. So explicitly, if you are dealing directly with COVID patients, obviously, you're a higher priority than someone that's not taking care of COVID patients,” Cullen said.
Although healthcare workers are prioritized, the rest of the community will have access as early as the summer on a voluntary basis.
“The Pima County Health Department recommends in the strongest terms that anyone who works in a healthcare setting or long-term care facility get the vaccine when their subcategory is ready. But getting a vaccine is voluntary,” Rambaud said. “We are confident that this vaccine is safe for most of the population. While it was developed quickly, it has been through the same safety standards and trials as other regularly administered immunizations.”
The health department acknowledged the possibility of difficulties in administering the vaccine but ensures they are ready to mitigate any threats.
“Given the complexity of the drive-thru process at a POD site, there could be many issues. There could be car accidents in the parking lots, there could be adverse reactions, there could be issues with the scheduling and the registration processing,” Graves said. “We are trying to minimize these by planning ahead and doing a safety analysis and risk analysis so we can help mitigate any of these issues coming up.”
The department also stressed the safety of the vaccine despite concerns surrounding its relatively quick authorization.
“I know there are a lot of concerns about safety due to the really rapid timeline surrounding this vaccine. What I would say to that is they did not skip any of the steps for the approval, it went through the same rigorous testing and safety trials that we see all of our other widely accepted vaccines go through,” Rambaud said. “I feel that this vaccine is safe, it's been indicated that it's safe. So we really hope that the community can feel confident about this vaccine.”
Despite the hope the vaccine may bring as the coronavirus pandemic persists, the health department emphasized it is not the time to become complacent to important safety mitigation protocols like mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent sanitization as the county remains in a state of widespread transmission of COVID-19.
“We need every resident of the county to continue to adhere to the recommendations that we have promulgated. Once again, we are in an accelerated transmission phase. Despite the fact that the vaccine will be here this week, the impact of the vaccine will take months to achieve in terms of a community-based response,” Cullen said. “Obviously, the individuals that receive the vaccine will get protection after the second shot. But in the meantime, we encourage and really plead with the community to stay committed to the activities that we know will help mitigate the transmission that we are currently seeing.”