A sign outside the Nogales Recreation Center on Thursday advertises a COVID-19 vaccine clinic for kids ages 5 to 11.

High demand for COVID-19 inoculations, especially for children ages 5 to 11, led the the county government this week to tighten up the process for distributing shots at the vaccination clinic it operates at the Nogales Recreation Center.

In a post to its social media feeds on Tuesday afternoon, the county wrote: “IMPORTANT UPDATE: Due to high demand, vaccinations are currently only available for those who reside, work or go to school in Santa Cruz County.” Then on Wednesday, the county advised that “appointments are required” for vaccination clinics for children ages 5 to 11 scheduled on Nov. 17, 18 and 29.

Staff at the Rec Center clinic had been vaccinating people on either a walk-in or by-appointment basis, and with little enforcement of residency or workplace requirements. But according to County Manager Jennifer St. John, the changes came in response to an influx of people on Nov. 10 who were vying for vaccination shots for their children ages 5-11.

St. John acknowledged that many were children brought from Sonora to receive the recently approved vaccination, which currently is not being administered to the 5-to-11 age group in Mexico.

Two days earlier, the border re-opened to non-essential travel from Mexico. And while adults crossing on tourist visas are required to be fully vaccinated, children traveling with them are not.

The 75 or so people working and volunteering at the Rec Center vaccination site on Nov. 10 eventually worked through the queue. Then the center closed down for the Veterans Day holiday and reopened on Tuesday, Nov. 16 to vaccinate people 12 and older. And while there was a line once again, it was not near what was seen on Nov. 10, when more than 800 shots were administered.

When the age 5-to-11 group returned on Wednesday, the process was “great and smooth,” St. John said, noting that 380 vaccinations were given that day.

In Nogales, Sonora, city officials reported that about 4,000 children ages 12 to 17 received COVID-19 vaccines at clinics coordinated by the Mexican Consulate and the University of Arizona prior the lifting of the border-crossing restrictions. When the border re-opened to non-essential travel on Nov. 8, some Sonora residents saw an opportunity to get their children inoculated in the United States.

“They not only went to Nogales, Ariz., I know some people went further north to Tucson, and perhaps even Phoenix,” said Nogales, Sonora-based reporter Cesar Barron of Radio XENY.

They had been encouraged to do so.

Speaking to a throng of reporters, mostly from Sonora, during a midnight news conference on the Mexican side of the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry that marked the Nov. 8 re-opening, Mayor Arturo Garino of Nogales, Ariz. said that vaccination efforts in the city were now focused largely on booster shots. He noted that tourists from Mexico are required to be fully vaccinated and told those getting ready to cross the border once again that they should consider getting a booster on this side as well.

“Take advantage that you’re over there if you have the opportunity to get vaccinated with the third vaccine,” he said in Spanish.

A subsequent online headline in El Imparcial, the largest newspaper in Sonora, read: “Border reopening: Mayor of Arizona (sic) invites Sonorans to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 in the U.S.,” though the story only cited Garino’s quote encouraging adults to get a booster shot.

Now the new policy at the Rec Center excludes non-residents or out-of-towners who don’t work here from getting the vaccine. “We need to take care of our residents, especially our students” to prevent spread and keep schools open, St. John said.

She said that clinic workers verify county residency through various formats, including drivers’ licenses, utility bills, lease agreements, student identification cards, and even school district apps that can verify a student’s enrollment.

COVID-19 infections have been on the rise in Santa Cruz County since the beginning of November, and a growing share of those cases have been in people 19 or under. Earlier this month, an elementary school and a K-8 school in Rio Rico briefly returned to remote learning in response to coronavirus concerns on campus.

Government regulators on Nov. 2 gave emergency authorization to a Pfizer-made vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11, and St. John said “most if not all” local schools that have children in that age group have had state vaccination buses visit and administer shots. The mobile units spent three days each last week at schools in the Santa Cruz Valley and Nogales unified school districts. 

The mobile vaccinators had yet to visit the smaller Mexicayotl and Petite charter schools in Nogales, though the Rec Center clinic offered two days of vaccinations this week for 5-to-11 year-olds who weren’t given the shots at school.

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