Jennifer Martinez of the Mariposa Community Health Center prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine during a drive-through clinic in Nogales on Monday, Feb. 8.

State officials this week announced a new age-focused approach to COVID-19 vaccine distribution that opened appointments to people 55 and older, starting in the Phoenix area.

But in Santa Cruz County, public health authorities have only just begun vaccinating people in the 65-to-74 age group as they continue to administer large numbers of second Moderna vaccine doses to essential workers. Like several other counties in the state, the local effort isn’t following the state’s 55-plus criteria for the time being, said County Health Services Director Jeff Terrell.

However, with hundreds of single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines set to arrive in Nogales next week, Terrell said he is hoping to advance quickly through the 65-plus group and move on to other sectors of the community.

“We’re now just getting into the 65-to-74-year-old group,” he said on Thursday, noting that the state’s new approach tells counties that they can transition to the next age category when 55 percent of their current age category has been vaccinated, or if they determine that demand for the vaccine among the current age group has diminished.

Santa Cruz County hasn’t reached either of those benchmarks yet, Terrell said, but added: “It may go fairly quickly because with the 65-to-74-year-olds, we know as a matter of fact, that some have been vaccinated.”

“I can’t give you a number, but there are several of them who have gone elsewhere to get the shot – maybe up to the State Farm pod in Phoenix, maybe at the U of A in Tucson. Or they were vaccinated by us under a different category – say they’re still working and they’re considered essential workers,” he said. “So we have got some of those taken care of in a different fashion, but now we’re opening up to some of those 65-to-74-year-olds who may be retired or don’t meet any of those other criteria.”

State data showed that 10,172 people had received at least one vaccine dose in Santa Cruz County as of Thursday morning. Of those, 4,916 had received both doses.

The number of people vaccinated in Santa Cruz County relative to its overall population was better than the statewide rate. So why has it been more difficult for the local vaccine effort to move on to successive age groups?

Terrell pointed to the need to administer second shots every four weeks, and said that if the state’s allocation of vaccines stays steady, as it had been for Santa Cruz County, they eventually reach a point where they can only give second doses and not vaccinate any new people.

This week, however, the usual 1,800-dose allocation of Moderna vaccines was increased to 1,000, which allowed for some new appointments. Next week the county is again expecting 2,800 Moderna doses – most of which will be second doses – but they’re scheduled to receive 600 Johnson & Johnson doses as well.

“The following week, I believe, the week of the 15th, we should basically be all first shots, new appointments. We should be caught up with those second doses,” Terrell said.

Another factor that might have slowed the county’s progress toward vaccinating new groups is the large number of public safety personnel in the community who were prioritized early on in the campaign. And in addition to officers who live locally, the county provided shots to a number of federal law enforcement officers who live elsewhere.

Still, Terrell minimized the impact that the out-of-county recipients had had on the process. “At the most, maybe 500” of the vaccinations went to non-residents, he estimated.

The arrival of Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses “should make a big difference, because it’s a single shot,” Terrell said, adding: “I think it will help us knock out a few more, faster.”

With 3,400 total doses expected next week, Terrell said he’s anticipating that the vaccine clinic operated by the Mariposa Community Health Center in Nogales will extend its usual workweek from Tuesday to Friday, to Tuesday through Sunday.

Which is best?

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said the United States should have enough coronavirus vaccines for all adults by the end of May, and announced that drugmaker Merck would help produce Johnson & Johnson’s newly approved one-shot vaccine. That same day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the federal government was increasing the supply of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to states next week to 15.2 million doses per week, up from 14.5 million previously, and said states would also receive 2.8 million doses of the J&J shot this week, The Associated Press reported.

The number of J&J doses to the states will climb to 4 million to 6 million weekly doses by the end of March and 5 million to 6 million doses weekly through the end of April, the AP reported, noting that the vaccine “is less resource-intensive to distribute and administer, making it critical for U.S. plans to spread vaccinations around the world.”

Santa Cruz County still hasn’t received any Pfizer vaccines, despite Mariposa Community Health Center’s earlier investment in a special freezer to store it, Terrell said. But for the first time starting next week, there will more than one type of vaccine available in the area.

“Like the CDC says, ‘What vaccine is best? The one that’s available.’ And whatever we get, I recommend people take it. If you get called for any one of the vaccines, you take it,” he said.

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