Pima County residents 18 and older can now get a COVID-19 booster shot at county-run vaccination sites.

That’s a deviation from federal guidelines but is needed because of the high transmission rate here, health officials said Wednesday.

Currently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends booster shots for people aged 65 and older, as well as for those employed in high-risk jobs, among other criteria.

An overwhelming surge of COVID-19 in Pima County, with more than 350 cases being reported per 100,000 residents, means the whole county is considered high risk right now, said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county’s public health director.

Cullen and her department have typically stayed aligned with CDC guidelines during the pandemic, but she said something has to be done quickly to mitigate local infection rates.

“We are in high, high, high transmission at the current rate,” she said, noting that rates are considered high when they reach 100 per 100,000 residents. “Our community is now a high risk community.”

Pima County is the only county in Arizona to make the booster available to all adults 18 and older. Santa Clara County in California has opened up boosters to all adult residents, and some other state governments have jumped ahead of CDC guidelines.

Cullen said she expects the CDC will soon announce all adults can get a booster regardless of age or other risk factors.

An influential U.S. advisory panel will discuss expanding eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to all adults Friday, a move that could make the shots available nationwide as early as this weekend, the Associated Press reported.

The booster should be given six months after a second dose of Moderna or Pfizer, or at least two months after getting the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

For more information on the county-run sites and the hours shots are available, visit webcms.pima.gov and click on COVID Vaccine. Registration for at-home booster shots is available by calling 520-222-0119.

About 25% of the Pima County cases in October were breakthrough cases, meaning people who were vaccinated got sick. Vaccinated people are not, however, driving up the surge in the same way unvaccinated residents are, Cullen said.

Only about 3% to 4% of the breakthrough cases required a stay in the hospital and the degree and length of sickness, overall, is significantly less than in unvaccinated patients, Cullen said.

“People get clear of the virus much quicker if they’ve been vaccinated,” she said. “What we know is that people who have been fully vaccinated and get sick get significantly less sick.”

On average, people who have a breakthrough case experience it about five to six months after their second shot of Moderna or Pfizer, she said.

Hospital capacity concerns

Due to the current transmission rate, local hospitals are overwhelmed, Cullen said, with intensive care bed availability ranging from about 2% to 5%.

“I am very concerned about hospital capacity,” Cullen said, adding that hospital stays typically increase during winter months even when there isn’t a pandemic.

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, Banner Health’s hospitals had their highest ICU patient count of the past 8 months. Banner is the largest health-care provider in the state.

COVID patients now account for more than a third of all ICU patients in Banner’s Arizona hospitals and more than 25% of all Banner Health’s inpatients.

Eighty percent of Banner’s hospitalized COVID patients in Arizona are unvaccinated.

School outbreaks

Schools in the county also continue to see increases in cases.

As of Friday, Nov. 12, there were 4,684 school cases reported here, 146 outbreaks and 94 classroom closures, said Brian Eller, a COVID-19 school liaison for Pima County.

As of Wednesday, Nov. 17, that had increased to 176 outbreaks and 106 classroom closures.

Classrooms are closed when three or more cases are reported among children or adults who are not related and do not participate in any regular activities together outside the classroom, such as a sports team or club.

“We do not make that decision unilaterally nor do we make that decision lightly,” Eller said of closing a classroom. “We only do that in a situation where we really feel like the spread within that classroom setting has gotten to the point where there needs to be a public-health decision.”

Clinic to open on Saturdays for kids’ shots

Private pediatric clinics are offering the shot to children ages 5 to 11. In addition, the county is hosting three vaccine clinics at local schools each day and is averaging about 150 shots at those sites daily.

Cullen said there have not been any safety issues or concerning reactions reported among the children who have been vaccinated so far.

However, there has been a rise in pediatric hospitalizations for unvaccinated children sick with COVID-19, including a recent pediatric death from the virus.

In order to make the vaccine more available to children, the county will open its Abrams Public Health Center, 3950 S. Country Club Road, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays.

The county is testing about 4,000 people per day for COVID and has distributed 1.3 million doses of vaccine so far. About 60% of the county’s adult residents are fully vaccinated.

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