FILE - COVID-19 vaccine

According to numbers from last spring, the Pima County Health Department will need to administer an estimated 100,000 vaccine doses per month through January, to keep up with anticipated demand for the recently approved Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot.  

The Pima County Health Department is ramping up efforts to deliver thousands of booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine into the arms of those now eligible to receive it.

According to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are two categories of people eligible to receive a COVID-19 booster shot at least six months after their primary Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination series – people who should get one, and those who may get one.

Those who should get a booster dose include people 65 years and older, adults in long-term care facilities and people aged 50 and older with underlying health conditions who may be at risk of serious illness.

Younger adults with underlying medical conditions, as well as adults who are at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 because of where they work or live may also consider getting a booster shot, the CDC said, but stopped short of a full recommendation.

Advisors from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices weren’t convinced there was enough evidence to recommend a booster for people at risk due to workplace exposure, but CDC Director Rochelle Walensky broke with that guidance.

In an interview with CBS News on Sunday, Walensky explained people can make that decision based on their own individual risks.

“I felt it was appropriate for those people to also be eligible for boosters...that includes people in homeless shelters, people in group homes, people in prisons, but also importantly people who work with vulnerable communities, so our healthcare workers, our teachers, our grocery store workers, our public transportation employees,” she said.

In addition, these recommendations only apply to people who previously received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

During a press conference Friday, Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said people who received the Johnson & Johnson or Moderna vaccines will need to wait until the Food and Drug Administration reviews more data to receive guidance on their booster dose.

“I would argue that booster shots are not like your wardrobe, and you don’t necessarily want to mix-and-match,” Cullen said.

“The recommendation as it stands right now is for you to get your booster shot consistent with what you got your first two shots.”

Moderna’s application to deliver its own booster, one that would be half the dose of the original shots, is being reviewed by the FDA. As of last week, the agency had not received an application from Johnson & Johnson for a booster of its vaccine.

Booster rollout

The booster rollout represents a new challenge for Cullen and the health department.

In looking at Pima County’s vaccination numbers from spring, Cullen estimated the health department will need to administer about 100,000 shots per month, starting now through January, to meet the anticipated demand.

That’s on top of the estimated 9,000 per week the department continues to deliver to Pima County residents receiving their first and second vaccine doses, Cullen added.

“I can tell you I’m not sleeping again because I’m trying to figure this out,” Cullen said with a laugh.

The health department will rely on its current infrastructure, which includes three public health clinics and the Abrams Public Health Center, as well as local retail pharmacies to meet the demand.

Over the weekend, retail pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens began allowing eligible individuals to walk-in or pre-register online for their booster shot.

Citing that the local clinical system is “stretched” due to staffing shortages and limited ICU bed capacity, Cullen said she did not anticipate asking hospitals to stand up large vaccination sites.

“To ask the clinical system to stand up large points of distribution seems to fly in the face of what we want the clinical system to do, which is provide clinical care,” she said.

Instead, Cullen said the health department will work closely with the state to determine if standing up a larger point of distribution, similar to the county’s initial vaccine rollout, would be necessary.

On Monday, a spokesperson for the health department said they were still waiting for confirmation from the state about how exactly they plan to support booster shots, and hoped to release more information about the county’s distribution plans this week.

Cullen reiterated that as the department works to address the demand for boosters, getting more unvaccinated individuals to roll up their sleeves will still remain a top priority.

“If you know someone who’s not immunized, and you’re coming to get your booster, maybe convince them to come with you. The most important thing we can do as a county is to get the unvaccinated vaccinated,” Cullen said.

According to the CDC COVID Data Tracker, about 66.5 percent of vaccine-eligible individuals in Pima County (those aged 12 and up) have been fully immunized; almost 76 percent of vaccine-eligible individuals in the county have received at least one dose.

Mary Glen Hatcher | 520-547-9740

Mary Glen is a North Carolina native who's excited to explore the Tucson area through her reporting with Green Valley News. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media in 2019.