A festive scene greeted the public in a Phoenix Municipal Stadium parking lot on Monday as the Arizona Department of Health Services opened its second drive-up vaccination site.
Camera shutters clicked and someone dressed as Arizona State University mascot Sparky the Sun Devil posed with teachers and cops as they received a jab from DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ.
Appointments for the site are full for the rest of the month, but DHS marked the site's opening by bringing back for their second dose some of those who had been vaccinated by Dr. Christ at State Farm Stadium half a month ago, when the state established its first such mass vaccination site.
However, what should have been a cause for celebration — a significant expansion of vaccination efforts that will make it easier for those in the east Valley to get vaccines — was hampered by one unavoidable fact: There aren't enough vaccines.
After federal officials denied the state's request last month for an additional 300,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, the new site will only be able to offer 500 of the 12,000 doses it's capable of providing each day before shutting down.
"What we need right now ... are more vaccines," Governor Doug Ducey said on CNN over the weekend. "We're in danger of running out of the vaccines we have."
Last week, Phoenix news station ABC15 asked Vice President Kamala Harris how the denial of vaccines matched up with the Biden administration's pledge to boost vaccination efforts. In response, Harris completely ignored the question and repeated a jumble of talking points about supporting state officials. It has been reported that the Biden administration is struggling to wrap its arms around the shambles of a national vaccination program left by President Donald Trump and track down thousands of unaccounted-for vaccine doses.
Chris Beyrer, a Johns Hopkins University public health professor, said one of the challenges faced by the Biden administration is establishing a uniform approach to vaccinating the country.
"Unfortunately, what we see is a very heterogenous picture because essentially the previous Trump administration tasked the states with coming up with their plans," Beyrer said at a January 28 media briefing.
In Arizona, state and county officials say they are standing by to open additional vaccination sites — once they receive enough vaccines to do so.
As of Sunday, January 31, more than 659,700 vaccine doses had been administered in Arizona. Around 101,000 people (less than 1.4 percent of the state's population) have received the second dose of the vaccine, which is needed to activate its full protective effects. Experts estimate that 70 to 90 percent of the population will need to be fully vaccinated to halt the spread of COVID-19.
Arizona is currently 16th in the nation for the total number of vaccines distributed but is still below average when it comes to the percentage of the population fully vaccinated, according to a Bloomberg tracker, which does not have fully up-to-date data. The rate marks an improvement from a month ago when it was among the lowest in the country. But there is still far to go.
The issue isn't demand. Vaccination sites in Maricopa County are constantly booked and February appointments for state-run sites filled up in just a day despite a glitchy and unintuitive sign-up system.
Ducey told Tucson TV station KVOA on January 28 that he is talking to other governors and heads of vaccine manufacturing companies to work on securing additional doses.
He is also hoping to reallocate vaccines within the state to ensure they are used as quickly as possible. Last week, the governor issued an order requiring all providers to report detailed information on their vaccination supply and how quickly they were distributing doses. Providers with 40 percent or less of their supply distributed had to submit a plan to dramatically increase their distribution in the next few days or face confiscation by the state.
Some providers still had as much as 100 percent of the allocation unused, the governor's office said in a release announcing the measure. Reports were due Thursday, January 28, and a DHS spokesperson said the next afternoon that the agency was still sorting through them. State officials hope to free up additional doses to funnel to high-capacity sites like those DHS is running.
Once additional supply is secured, the next challenge will be ensuring vaccines reach underserved communities. In particular, some individuals in communities of color, which have been hit hardest by COVID-19, may distrust officials and have little free time or the computer skills to navigate confusing systems.
It's a challenge exacerbated by a historical lack of public health staffing, a problem that has already delayed the vaccine rollout. Local vaccine providers have sought out volunteers to help staff vaccination sites, tempting some with the chance of receiving a leftover vaccine dose at the end of the day.
“The point here is community engagement is hard, time-consuming work that requires an adequate number of personnel and a robust operating budget, and we need to get dollars into these type of line items,” said Monica Schoch-Spana, a Johns Hopkins medical anthropologist and senior scholar at the January 28 media briefing.
As the overall vaccine supply increases, widespread distribution may also make it easier to convince vaccine-hesitant people to get the shot. DHS head Dr. Christ has said the goal is for COVID-19 jabs to be as widespread as flu shots, with local healthcare providers ordering doses directly instead of having to go through the state.
A recently released survey from national pollster Gallup and Center for the Future of Arizona, a local, education-focused nonprofit, found that 77 percent of Arizonans trust their doctors for public health information, compared to less than a quarter who said they trust the governor or the media for that information.
Additional vaccines will also allow further expansion of a slowly growing program that offers vaccinations at local pharmacies. Currently, 17 grocery store pharmacies in the Valley are offering the shots to people aged 75 and older.
With current shortages, it will likely be months until the state reaches widespread vaccine distribution, and many months beyond that until life begins to return to normal. Even after receiving both doses of the vaccine, experts warn that it's important to keep wearing masks and physical distancing because it is unknown whether you can still pass COVID-19 on to others after being vaccinated.
This is especially true if you've only received one of the two necessary doses of the vaccine.
Contact tracers working out of ASU have encountered clusters of cases caused by people with only one dose of the vaccine deciding it was safe to gather, said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the university's Biodesign Institute.
“That is a set-up for the virus to start to mutate around the vaccine," he said. "The virus has a biological imperative to survive.”
With the arrival of more infectious variants, LaBaer said it will take a higher percentage of people to establish herd immunity. And if those variants cause even wider spread of the virus, it increases the odds of more vaccine-resistant variants appearing, he said.
"That’s one of the reasons we’re so focused on getting the vaccine out to as many people as we can,” Dr. Christ said when asked about the appearance of variants. She said DHS looks forward to one day operating the Phoenix Municipal Stadium site at full capacity — once they have enough vaccines to do so.
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