Pima County opened vaccine registration to more people countywide on Friday as COVID-19 cases continue to decline and inoculations increase.
The county Health Department announced the decision Thursday to open registration for people 55 and older and those considered front-line essential workers.
Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said the county relies on an honor system for registrants to self-identify as eligible according to the front-line essential workers' list.
Those workers must work in person, on-site and within 6 feet of other people. The county also requires eligible people to work in food and agriculture, manufacturing, grocery and convenience stores, restaurants, bars, state and local government, the U.S. Postal Service and public transit, including Uber, Lyft and taxis.
"I just want to remind people that up until now, other than age, which obviously you could probably fake if you had the wrong ID, we have relied on the honor system by and large," Cullen said. "We believe there is some, what we call, slippage, a small percentage of people have slipped through that have not been in the group they were supposed to be in."
But Cullen warned that at any time during Phase 1A and 1B priority, a vaccinator could require proof such as a badge, teaching paperwork or something to prove eligibility.
Cullen said it wasn't clear how many people frontline-essential workers add to the county's rolls for vaccination, but she estimated it's around 40,000 to 60,000.
The county also opened registration to people 55 and older, which Cullen said was due to the county meeting a state threshold calling for vaccinations of more than 55 percent of people 65 and older. She said the county vaccinated 59.4 percent of people 65 and older as of Monday.
Cullen said the addition of people 55 and older added about 136,000 more residents to vaccination rolls based on old U.S. Census data.
"What's important to note too as we move to the 55 and up is that we believe, based on data from the state, that approximately 20 percent of our 55 and up have already been vaccinated," she said. "You'll recall they've been vaccinated because they fell into other categories like health care workers, law enforcement, teachers and staff."
The state-run vaccination site at the University of Arizona plans to focus on inoculating the 55 and older crowd while county-run sites would handle frontline-essential workers. The county's registration system asks two questions for registrants to attest to eligibility. The state's system doesn't ask the questions.
State genome sequencing confirmed four cases of the U.K. variant in Pima County this week.
Cullen said randomly chosen positive COVID-19 tests are sequenced, and the four U.K.-positive results were from samples taken about three weeks ago.
"You will recall that the U.K. variant does have a much quicker and easy spread," she said. "So, we remind the community at this point, since we know that the U.K. variant is in Pima County, for people to please remember the Three W's. Remember wash, wear your mask and wait – make sure you have 6 feet of space between you and other people."
The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 867 positive cases for Pima County on March 8. A month earlier, on Feb. 8, the state reported 2,503 positive cases in the county.
Vaccinations continue to increase. ADHS reported 336,088 vaccines administered in Pima County, covering 211,187 people – 20.2 percent of the population, with 135,781 people fully vaccinated as of Friday.
Statewide ICU hospitalizations continue to improve as well. ADHS reported COVID-19 positive patients occupied 14 percent of adult ICU beds in Arizona on Thursday. On Feb. 10, ADHS reported COVID-19 positive patients occupied 40 percent of adult ICU beds statewide.
On Thursday, Cullen said there was a slight increase in Pima County hospitalizations, and the Health Department needs to monitor the situation for the next 14 days. She said the Health Department hadn't determined a reason for the increase.
"It actually does concern me, and the reason why it concerns me is I don't know why it exists," Cullen said. "While we know our case number is going down and positivity is going down, we should have less transmission. An increase in the hospitalization means that we may have a viral impact on individuals that has more what we would call morbidity associated with it. So, people are getting ill."
Green Valley Fire District, Premier Medical Group, Green Valley Council and local volunteers wrapped up a four-day vaccination site at Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital on Thursday. And GVFD Chief Chuck Wunder said dispensing went smoothly, with 2,903 people receiving their second doses.
On Tuesday, Wunder was concerned eligible people weren't showing up to receive their second doses. On Friday, he said it was primarily due to people receiving their second doses at Tucson-based vaccination sites.
The March 8-11 vaccination site at SCVRH was for the 3,000 people who received their first dose in Green Valley Feb. 3-5 at either SCVRH or Community Performance & Art Center.
GVC President Debbie Kenyon said the second round was a little more intense, with appointment issues and general public anxiety securing the second dose.
But Kenyon said GVC staff and volunteers logged 93 hours on the phone from March 1-5 fielding calls. She said most were related to dependents not receiving appointment information for the second doses, which GVC sorted out in time for vaccine dispensing.
She also credited the Sheriff's Auxiliary Volunteers for setting appointments for those without email addresses.
"That was on March 1st, the SAV had 13 of their administrative staff members who made over 700 phone calls in three hours time on Monday morning," she said. "Pretty impressive."