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While Pima County widens vaccine eligibility, it’s receiving a reduced vaccine supply that makes it difficult to keep up with demand.

Last week, the Pima County Health Department announced those over 70 are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines by signing up for appointments beginning Monday.

While only the 75+ age group, protective service workers and educators were previously eligible, the health department is expanding its 1B priority group of vaccine recipients to include individuals over 70 after vaccinating more than 130,000 residents over the past six weeks, according to county health department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen.

However, this week’s vaccine allocation has been truncated. Last week, the state allocated Pima County 29,000 doses. This week, the county will only receive 17,800—a 39% decrease in an already strained vaccine supply.

“Weekly allocations to local jurisdictions are based on population size, which phase a county is currently vaccinating, and the number of doses available for allocation. While Pima County’s allocation this week is lower than in the recent past, in total to date, Pima County has received approximately 14% of the state's overall allocation,” Holly Poynter, the Arizona Department of Health Services’ public information officer, explained in an email. “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.”

As of Saturday, Pima County administered 147,229 vaccines out of a total state allocation of 165,950 doses. According to ADHS data, the county has given 26,104 sets of the two doses needed for one to be considered fully immunized.

While doses are taken from the state’s total vaccine allocation from the federal government to send to assisted living facilities, Walgreens, CVS and other store-based pharmacies, Cullen says the health department believes some doses are “taken off the top for other things that we may or may not have insight into.”

As the county expands vaccine eligibility to a wider swath of the population, it still has to ensure second doses are available for individuals who already received their first dose.

“We have worked really closely with our PODs, and we are planning for that inevitable time when we need to expand so people can get their second shot,” Cullen said. “But if the immunization numbers are decreased, we're in a situation where we're going to decide whether to do the first or the second shot. The CDC has given institutions the latitude to go to six weeks for a second shot, but not beyond that right now.”

The health director said she has confidence that all those who wish to receive vaccines in Pima County will get a shot when it’s their time to do so. However, the wait times may be elongated if the county continues to receive a limited vaccine supply.

“We want to look to where we need to go, where the puck is going. When we don't have the vaccine, it significantly impedes our ability to get there,” Cullen said. “I do believe that we will have the ability to fully vaccinate the community. What will happen is there will be a slow down at certain points.”

Last week, the state announced it would work toward opening a state-run distribution center in Pima County, but any vaccinations there would come off the top of the county’s allocated vaccine supply, leaving fewer doses for the sites Pima County is now running.

“Our commitment is to accelerate immunization. If we can get a 24/7, or even 18 hours by seven POD, that is a high-efficiency, high-effective POD, everyone in the county, and probably first and foremost the public health department, would be incredibly supportive of that,” Cullen said. “However, if the only way that is done is to take vaccine from the existing PODs, we have a hesitation.”

Those who currently qualify in Pima County’s 1B priority group of eligible vaccine recipients of those 70 and older, educators and protective service workers can register for a vaccine at pima.gov/covid19vaccineregistration or by calling 520-222-0119.

Arizona’s U.S. congressional members advocate for more vaccine

Both of Arizona’s senators and a group of representatives have appealed to the federal government for an increased vaccine supply.

Gov. Doug Ducey and ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ submitted a federal resource request for 300,000 doses followed by an additional 300,000 vaccines a week, but the request was denied, according to Ducey’s office.

Ducey appealed to Arizona’s congressional delegation to advocate for increased vaccine allocation, asking them in a written letter to “engage at every level to help secure additional COVID vaccine doses for the State of Arizona.”

In a Feb. 5 letter to Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 coordinator, Arizona Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly asked the government to reconsider the denial.

“While we appreciate the recent increase in allocations to states, it was not enough to meet Arizona’s needs or increase availability in our hardest-hit communities,” the senators wrote. “Given the impact of the virus on our state, we ask that Arizona’s request for an immediate 300,000 vaccine doses and an increase of 300,000 doses to our weekly allocation be granted. We stand ready to provide any assistance to help Arizona manage this additional allocation and to meet its vaccination goals, especially in our rural and medically underserved communities."

Congressman Raúl Grijalva joined U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego, Tom O’Halleran and Ann Kirkpatrick in writing a joint letter on Feb. 5 to Zients and President Joe Biden also asking for a reconsideration of Arizona’s increased vaccine request.

“We understand that there have been many failures at the state level to embrace and implement policies to effectively control the virus. The crisis the state is facing is not a failure of the current administration, but on behalf of our constituents we are seeking additional support to get out of this crisis as quickly as possible and save lives,” the representatives wrote. “We will continue to support more responsible mitigation activities throughout the state and ask that you consider our unique request for additional vaccinations and support.”