The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Wednesday to request the state to reconsider allowing a federally sponsored vaccination center in the county.
If Gov. Doug Ducey rejects the offer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency again, the board will work with its congressional delegation to make the county the sponsoring agent of the federal vaccine site and implement it without the state’s approval.
County staff met with state and federal officials to discuss the addition of a FEMA-run point of distribution, or POD, on March 17.
Ducey and Dr. Cara Christ, state health department director, turned down the offer over concerns the federal vaccination center would drain state resources without allowing it proper oversight and possibly siphon off vaccines from the state’s total allocation.
Tammy Littrell, the FEMA administrator for Region 9, wrote a letter to Christ on March 20 clarifying the state’s concerns were unfounded. She said the vaccines supplying a federal vaccination center wouldn’t draw from the state’s allocation and operations would be carried out collaboratively.
“You expressed concerns publicly that if accepted the new (federal POD) would not allow for state oversight on medical, managerial, efficiency and customer service. I regret that misunderstanding,” Littrell wrote. “On the contrary, we sought an active partnership that would leverage the state’s strengths in vaccination center operation and could have been operated with a unified command model as we are doing in other centers around the country.”
According to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, FEMA told the county it could provide 6,000 doses a week for up to eight weeks with first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine supplied in the first six weeks and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine administered the last two weeks.
If the state took up FEMA’s offer, 210,000 residents could be fully vaccinated.
The county also planned to target historically underserved, minority populations by dividing the federal doses between two locations with large Hispanic communities: El Pueblo Center and the Kino Event Center.
Statewide, nearly 10% of vaccines have gone to those of Hispanic or Latino descent. In Arizona, 32% of residents are Hispanic. In Pima County, about 38% of residents are Hispanic, but 16% of vaccines in the county have gone to Hispanic residents, according to state health department data.
The numbers are even worse at statewide PODs, which currently report 5% of vaccines going to the Hispanic population.
The two sites would be the first permanent effort by the county to reach underserved communities, as it currently deploys mobile clinics to serve these populations.
“These targeted federal vaccination PODs would greatly accelerate the vaccination of Pima County's minority and low-income population, and significantly complement and expand our efforts to achieve equitable levels of vaccine coverage across the county,” Huckelberry said.
While the Kino and El Pueblo sites are still in the works to become county-run, walk-in vaccination centers, without federal support, the vaccines supplying them will come from the county’s allocation.
Despite the state’s concern it would have to extend resources to a FEMA-run site, Huckelberry said the county has set up five vaccination centers without the state’s help and could handle operations at a federal POD.
Furthermore, with the recent news of the state opening vaccine eligibility up to those 16 and older, Huckelberry says it would be difficult for the county to follow suit with only its existing vaccination centers.
According to the county administrator, vaccines split between Kino and El Pueblo would first go to residents in their relative ZIP codes, but would move to the 16 and older population once demand declines.
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bronson joined the mayors of South Tucson, Oro Valley, Marana and Sahuarita on Monday in writing a letter to Ducey to reconsider his denial of FEMA’s offer to set up a vaccine site in Pima County.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Tucson sent out a news release Tuesday condemning the state for its refusal of the federal POD.
“I will do everything possible to direct resources to my district despite roadblocks from the state,” he said in the release. “For the state to play politics with people’s lives after more than 16,000 of our friends, family members, and loved ones have died of the virus is beyond the pale.”