Juvenile Jab: County prepares to distribute COVID vaccine for kids 5-11

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Pima County COVID cases have plateaued at a high level and the county Health Department has rolled out several new strategies this week with the goal of lowering cases.

Although Pima County is doing well in vaccination rates compared to other highly populated Arizona counties, COVID cases remain consistently high. As a result, the virus is still considered widespread in Pima County.

Since the August surge, cases per day are fluctuating between 200 and 400 in Pima County, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“Even though the surge is not continuing to get any worse, the fact that we are plateauing at such a high level is really critical,” said Pima County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia in an Oct. 29 press conference.

Garcia said 23% of intensive care units’ bed capacity in Pima County are used by COVID patients. This percentage has remained consistent and Garcia said COVID patients tend to linger in the ICU because of their symptoms.

The county is hoping to lower case numbers with several new policies and vaccination strategies.

Last week, Pima County began offering all booster shots to eligible adults. The Centers for Disease Control approved the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster on Oct. 21 with a “mix and match” recommendation. People can choose to receive a different booster shot from their original vaccination.

The county also released clearer guidelines on eligibility for booster shots with this new recommendation. People qualify for a booster if they completed two doses of Moderna or Pfizer shots at least six months ago and belong to one of these categories: 65 years or older; 18 years or older and live in long-term care settings; 18 years or older and have underlying medical conditions; 18 years or older and work (or live) in high-risk settings for COVID exposure. The Pima County website has more information on specific examples that apply to these categories.

Those who received the J&J shot are recommended to get any type of booster if they are 18 or older and received their original vaccine at least two months ago.

Along with expanding booster shot availability, the County unveiled a proactive vaccination strategy last week for children ages 5 to 11 in anticipation of the FDA and CDC approval of the Pfizer COVID vaccine.

Garcia said Pima County has pre-ordered 11,400 doses of pediatric Pfizer vaccines destined for 15 different vaccination locations. The pediatric vaccines will contain a third of the typical dose.

“We anticipate that those doses will ship sometime very early next week and be pre-positioned in those sites so that when the Centers for Disease Control, the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices, makes their recommendation, we are able to pivot relatively quickly and start delivering doses to those children,” Garcia said. 

Garcia said the source of his anxiety as a public health official is due to non-vaccine eligible school children. Most school COVID cases are coming from children up to 11 years old. 

“Despite the knowledge and ability to do better, absolute rates of community transmission remain higher this year than last among all age groups but particularly among children,” said Dr. Joe Gerald from the University of Arizona College of Public Health.

In a recent COVID update, Gerald’s graph of COVID cases in Arizona by age shows a dramatic increase in cases for the age group of 5 to 14 this year compared to last year. The prevalence of the Delta variant may be to blame. Garcia said the predominant variant in the United States is Delta because it is highly transmissible.

Once the CDC releases its recommendation, county officials want to make vaccination as easy as possible for parents to vaccinate their children. Mobile vaccine clinics will continue to be offered to schools that wish to partner with Pima County.

Vaccinating children 5 to 11 will protect household members and reduce COVID cases in Pima County, according to health officials. Vaccination may also help protect children from long-term COVID effects. Although it remains slightly unclear how COVID infection can affect children over long periods of time, new research is showing preliminary data concerning neurological side effects.

“Even transient anosmia, one of the most common COVID-19 side effects, could negatively impact the brain development of children,” Chief Deputy County Administrator Jan Lesher told the Pima County Board of Supervisors in a memo. “One study found that 22% of pediatric COVID-19 or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) patients had documented neurological
involvement.”   

COVID Testing Sites 

Pima County is still offering free COVID tests at multiple locations throughout Tucson for anyone with or without symptoms and people of all ages (2 years or older for a PCR test). Tests are not free for people who need to take them for work or if you had a test administered at a Pima County site within the last 14 days:

  • TEP building, 88 E. Broadway Blvd, nasal Swab (rapid antigen test), walk-up, or registration
  • Ellie Towne Center: 1660 W. Ruthrauff Road, saliva test (PCR test), appointment required
  • Liberty Plaza - 315 W. Irvington Road, nasal Swab (rapid antigen test), walk-up, or appointment
  • Paradigm - 6009 E. Grant Road, nasal Swab (rapid antigen test), walk-up, or appointment
  • Tucson International Airport - 7250 S. Tucson Blvd., nasal Swab (rapid antigen test), appointment only.

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