Gila County has set the pace for the state when it comes to moving through the COVID-19 risk groups with vaccination clinics to administer the first of two required shots, but the pace will soon slow down due to a reduction in shipments from the state.
The county has already offered the first dose of the Moderna vaccine to almost all of the 1A risk groups who want a shot — including front-line medical workers and many nursing home residents.
Moreover, last week the county finished giving shots to many in the 1B risk group, including police, firefighters, teachers and other school staff. The 1B group also includes adults older than 75, who can make an appointment to get shots if they haven’t already.
The county has administered 1,264 shots, giving it the highest vaccination rate in the state, according to Michael O’Driscoll, Gila County Health and Emergency Management director.
By contrast, in most counties teachers and public safety officers in the 1B group won’t start getting shots until next week or even later, according to media reports.
However, the state this week warned the county that it will only get 300 additional doses per week for the next 4-6 weeks, said O’Driscoll this week in a press release. This will slow the pace for the remainder of the 1B group and delay the start for the 1C group. The county has formally appealed for more doses.
On the other hand, only about two-thirds of the teachers and staff at the Payson Unified School District opted to get their shots at vaccination clinics last week, Superintendent Linda Gibson told the school board at Monday night’s meeting.
The district does not require employees to get the shot and does not know who has been vaccinated, which will complicate upcoming efforts to reopen school for in-person classes on Jan. 19.
Gila County’s prompt administration of the vaccine comes despite a one-week delay in getting the first batch of shots to rural counties and Arizona’s poor overall record of getting shots administered.
This week Arizona had the nation’s highest rate of spread as well as one of the lowest vaccination rates. One national vaccine tracker at midweek showed that Arizona had administered just 24% of the 563,000 doses it has received.
Nationally, about 35% of the 21 million vaccine doses distributed have so far actually been used. However, some states have used 50% to 70% of the doses they have received.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are challenging to administer because they require ultra-cold storage and spoil within an hour of opening the 10-dose vials in which they’re stored. Elsewhere, medical facilities have thrown away doses because they couldn’t administer them to the designated risk groups quickly enough to prevent spoilage.
The rollout of the life-saving vaccination program has gone so poorly nationally that the federal government this week changed the guidelines, promising to ship doses as fast as it can get them instead of holding back half the doses for a required booster shot. The guidelines urged states to offer protection for everyone over 65 as quickly as possible if people in the higher-priority groups don’t show up to get their shots.
O’Driscoll said it’s not clear how long it will take the federal change in distribution plans to trickle down to the county level. The federal government urged counties to immediately start vaccinating people older than 65 and anyone with a high-risk condition, like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, lung disease and heart disease.
“The amount of vaccine needed is far greater than we are receiving, so we will continue to work with our community partners to begin vaccinating the 75 and older populations as well as the newly added 65 and older population, but progress will be very slow,” said O’Driscoll.
The federal decision assumes manufacturers can ramp up production or that it won’t matter if the booster shot comes more than three weeks after the initial shot. However, the drug companies have warned that they have not tested whether the vaccine will provide the same protection if the booster shot is delayed beyond the three weeks used in clinical trials. The first dose offers 50% or 60% protection. Adding the booster shot in three weeks provides 95% protection, with minimal side effects which for some people include headache or flu-like symptoms. In a handful of cases, people with a history of allergic reactions to vaccines have reacted poorly. None of the side effects compare to the risk of getting the virus.
For some previous types of whole-virus vaccines, the booster shots sometimes provide even more protection if they’re delayed. The immune system has both a fast-acting first response and a secondary, delayed response once the immune system produces what are called memory t-cells. Older style vaccines relying on a harmless or inert virus to activate the immune system sometimes do better if the booster shot is delayed until the memory t-cells appear in force. However, the Moderna vaccine uses a single, crucial viral protein to arm the immune system. It’s unclear whether a delay in the booster shot will have the same effect for the new, messenger-RNA vaccines like Moderna’s, say virologists. However, experts note that even the 60% protection of the first shot will lower death rates, given the uncontrolled spread of the virus.
Health officials clearly face an ongoing battle in convincing people to get vaccinated, as evidenced by the decision of one third of the school district’s teachers and staff to not get the shot. The virus won’t subside until the whole population achieves “herd immunity.” In other infectious diseases, the virus can’t spread beyond isolated clusters once about 90% of the population has been vaccinated or acquired immunity by getting infected and recovering.
“It’s a personal choice,” said Gibson. “It depends on personal views. I really can’t tell you why one-third of our population decided not to get vaccinated,” said Gibson, who took advantage of the chance to get protected herself.
Board member Barbara Underwood — who participated in the meeting by phone because she’d been exposed to someone who tested positive — said, “I think we should be proud that two-thirds got the shot.”
Josh Beck, with the county health department, said roughly 50% to 80% of the health care workers in the 1A group have sought a vaccine. The county has fulfilled 90% of those requests.
The vaccinations in nursing homes have also begun, but may not wind up for four to six weeks.
In the meantime, the county’s been besieged by people seeking a shot who are not in the 1A and 1B groups.
“Honestly, we’ve definitely seen more interest than expected,” he said. “The phone calls and emails have been extremely busy. In the clinics, the no-show rate has been less than 1% — which is amazing. The residents are very grateful for getting their shots.”
However, he said the weekly supply of additional doses from the state remains unpredictable — making it hard to schedule appointments.
“At this time, there is not a known timeframe for vaccine allotment to our county — so it is difficult to give any anticipated times for group 1C or the following phases. Additionally, our providers each use separate sign-up systems, so it is difficult to wait-list based on each system using separate signups and our vaccine plans change each week to adjust for the best distribution that week based on our allotment.”
The CDC estimates that the nation has 87 million “essential” workers, 32 million people between the ages of 65 and 74, 21 million people older than 75 and 110 million people with high-risk medical conditions. All those people fall somewhere in the first two phases.
That leaves about 86 million in the general population between the ages of 16 and 64 without complicating medical conditions — in theory the last in line when it comes to getting a shot.
O’Driscoll urged people to get updates on the county’s Facebook page and at www.Readygila.com. However, the county doesn’t have enough doses to take telephone calls or emails to schedule people for their shot at present.
“Demand for the COVID-19 vaccine has far outpaced the production capabilities for the United States. In our daily communications with the Arizona Department of Health Services, they have been notified by the CDC that the vaccine allocation for Arizona will be significantly reduced for the next several weeks. We are guaranteed vaccine allocations for the second doses for those individuals that have already been vaccinated. Our COVID-19 vaccination team will continue their efforts to administer the vaccine second dose and plan for additional clinics in Gila County when the vaccine allocations increase.”
He continued, “Moving forward, each week we will evaluate the newest allocations and plan for the most effective method to administer the vaccine in completing the groups we are currently working through. If these allocations support our efforts, we will continue to move through Group 1B into the next category of critical industry workers.”
O’Driscoll thanked the county’s health care partners in the unprecedented vaccination effort.
“I would like to thank Cobre Valley Regional Medical Center, Ponderosa Family Care, Hope Family Care, Genoa Healthcare, Banner Payson Medical Center, volunteers, Arizona National Guard, Health Department staff, and all of our other community partners for administering the vaccine to the residents of Gila County.