Arizona reverses course, will allow a FEMA COVID-19 vaccine site in Pima County

Stephanie Innes, The Arizona Republic

March 26, 2021

AZCentral: Arizona reverses course, will allow a FEMA COVID-19 vaccine site in Pima County

An outcry from Pima County prompted the state of Arizona to back off its previous decision to reject a federally operated vaccine site.

The state is giving the Federal Emergency Management Agency authority to work directly with Pima County on operating a vaccine site there, Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona Department of Health Services director, said Friday.

That action is a reversal of the state's decision to reject FEMA's offer of a vaccine site in Arizona — a decision that was met with disbelief and objections by leaders in Pima County, as well as by Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Raúl Grijalva, Ruben Gallego, Tom O’Halleran and Greg Stanton, the five Democratic members of Arizona's congressional delegation.

During an emergency meeting on Wednesday of the Democratic-majority Pima County Board of Supervisors, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said a federal site could vaccinate an additional 210,000 people in Pima County over six to eight weeks, above and beyond their regular allocation of doses from the state.

One or more federal sites would provide an opportunity to reduce the amount of new coronavirus in circulation in a short period of time, Huckelberry said.

During the meeting, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of asking Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to reconsider the state's rejection of a federal vaccine site. The resolution says Pima County is ready to provide "the necessary site and administrative management, security, registration and vaccination support."

The county supervisors' resolution also said that if Ducey does not approve a FEMA site, the county would appeal to the Biden administration.

Ducey, a Republican, that same day defended the state's decision to reject the offer from FEMA, saying the state needs more vaccine supply, and not help with distribution. A Ducey spokesperson later said the governor would not be reconsidering the rejection.

Pima County officials were still waiting for an official notification of the state's decision on Friday afternoon, but Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said that if the news were true, it would be a positive step for the county in getting the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable people in the southern Arizona county.

Huckelberry later Friday released a statement thanking Ducey for his “thoughtful reconsideration” of the FEMA offer.

”The County Health Department will resume its planning with FEMA to begin administering these vaccines to County residents as soon as possible,” Huckelberry said in his statement.

Christ on Friday said the state had changed its mind based on assurances from FEMA that operating one or more vaccine sites in Pima County would not take away from the state's allocation of vaccine supply.

Also, Pima County said it would handle all of the necessary logistics without any assistance from the state, Christ said.

"We are going to delegate the authority to Pima County to work independently with FEMA to operate a vaccine POD (point of distribution) if they choose that that is in the best interest of their community," Christ said.

"The state remains ready, willing and able to take the additional vaccine if it's unable to be used at this FEMA-operated POD, or if they are unable to meet the requirements and we are ready to administer it at our existing state sites."

Christ said she sent a letter to FEMA at 12:45 p.m. Friday giving them the authority to work with Pima County. Her letter expresses doubts about Pima County officials' ability to adequately support a federal vaccine site, but nonetheless gives FEMA the authority to work with them.

The state and Pima County had a previous disagreement over reimbursement for COVID-19 testing.

"Based on our recent experience with Pima County, we have concerns about their ability to adequately support your site, given their inability to financially sustain other COVID-19 related public health activities they have chosen to undertake, and have since billed the state for unapproved costs," Christ wrote.

"Given the dramatic financial constraints they claim to experience from these activities, we would like to get written assurance that Pima County and/or the federal government is able to appropriately fund the activities required to operate a FEMA site until reimbursement from FEMA is obtained.”

In his statement, Huckelberry said he would be responding to Christ directly about the “unfounded reservations and unwarranted criticisms expressed in her letter. “

During a Friday afternoon briefing, Cullen, the Pima County Health Department director, had not yet seen the letter, but said hearing that the county might get FEMA's help was "making my day."

The county had been planning and hoping to get one or more vaccine sites operated by FEMA, and Tammy Littrell, FEMA's acting regional administrator, had visited with county officials in Tucson to discuss how it could be executed, she said.

"We've been doing planning with the expectation that perhaps a miracle would happen, that there would be a significant change in the decision-making," Cullen said during Friday's briefing. "What it points out in this case is this recognition that Pima County itself was very vocal in sharing its concern and its commitment to get additional vaccine into the county. This can only be a win for us."

In a March 20 letter to Christ, Littrell wrote that Pima County is an "excellent candidate" to reach underrepresented populations with the COVID-19 vaccine because it has a population of about 1 million people and includes vulnerable communities who have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Christ said she's hoping Pima County has the ability to provide the necessary resources to staff a FEMA vaccination site, and she's hopeful that's something the county and the federal agency can work out.

"To have in writing from FEMA that this would remain federally-allocated vaccine was reassuring because that is not what we were hearing from state counterparts that have a site in other states on calls that we are on," Christ said.

"As long as they can guarantee that and Pima County was fine providing all of the necessary resources and staffing, we will let them work directly with FEMA on that."