Arizonans will get COVID-19 vaccines free of charge under an executive order by Gov. Doug Ducey, with health care workers, long-term care facility residents and other vulnerable populations at the front of the line, followed by teachers, law enforcement and other essential employees.
In the meantime, Ducey enacted new restrictions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which is reaching levels not seen since Arizona’s spike over the summer, but resisted calls for stricter measures such as a statewide face mask mandate, curfews or shutdowns of businesses.
Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said she expects the state to begin receiving weekly allotments of vaccines from manufacturers like Pfizer and Moderna by the middle of December, and projected that Arizona would get hundreds of thousands of doses by the end of the month.
Ducey’s new guidelines on vaccine distribution dovetail with new recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which is urging states to prioritize health care workers and residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
In addition to the health care workers and people in care facilities, Ducey said Arizona will prioritize teachers, along with critical law enforcement officers and other essential workers.
Christ said ADHS will focus first on health care workers and care facility residents – hospitals and health care organizations are expected to take the lead on vaccinating their employees – and then move on to others, possibly setting up industry-specific vaccination sites.
“We want our schools open and our teachers protected. We know that teachers desperately want to get back into their classrooms safely,” Ducey said during a press briefing on Wednesday.
There are about 21 million health care workers nationwide and 3 million residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The CDC expects vaccines for 20 million people to be available by the end of December. Those vaccines will be distributed to states based on their adult populations, not on their COVID caseloads.
In a call with reporters Wednesday morning, Joshua LaBaer, the executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, said he doesn’t expect widespread distribution of the vaccine to the general public until the second or even third quarter of 2021.
Ducey also announced that he’s issuing an executive order mandating that Arizonans can get COVID vaccines free of charge. He said he’s working with insurance companies to ensure that Arizonans won’t have to pay for vaccines, and that taxpayer funds won’t be used.
The vaccine news comes as Arizona, along with the rest of the country, grapples with a worsening pandemic. Arizona has set daily and weekly records for new COVID cases over the past few weeks, recording more than 10,000 new cases on Tuesday, which ADHS attributed to a lag in reporting from the four-day Thanksgiving weekend.
Total hospitalizations for COVID are rising as well, hitting 2,699 on Wednesday, the highest number since July 24, as the summer peak was receding. Only 10 percent of intensive care unit beds and 13 percent of all hospital beds were available on Wednesday, with coronavirus patients taking up a larger share of the total each day.
Despite the increasingly grim news, Ducey still opposed additional shutdowns like the one he enacted in April and May.
“When you say the word ‘lockdown’ you’re talking about shutting down entire industries, closing classrooms, bankrupting small businesses. You’re talking about putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work,” the governor said. “So no, I don’t think the right answer is to throw hundreds of thousands of Arizonans out of work before the holidays to slow the spread because I don’t think it would slow the spread.”
Instead, Ducey called for more enforcement and diligent compliance with the restrictions that are already in place. And he announced several new measures as well.
Ducey prohibited public gatherings of more than 50 people earlier in the year, but allows cities and counties to override that restriction if they enact mitigation measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. In the wake of the City of Phoenix’s decision to host a massive youth soccer tournament over Thanksgiving weekend, Ducey, through another executive order, will now require cities and counties to publicly announce their mitigation plans and submit them to ADHS.
On Wednesday, the City of Phoenix announced the closure of all athletic fields, along with basketball and volleyball courts, and cancelled all upcoming athletic tournaments.
The state will also step up penalties for businesses that don’t follow the masking, distancing and other safety precautions Ducey has enacted. Moving forward, businesses will receive a warning and will have an opportunity to remedy the problem if they have one complaint that’s substantiated by state authorities. But after a second substantiated complaint they’ll be forced to close.
“Our businesses have done a great job, and it’s not right and it’s not fair to those that are playing by the rules for others to openly ignore them. The outliers are few and far between. But we need fairness and an even playing field,” Ducey said.
Restaurants will get new state funding to help them operate more safely. With restaurants operating at limited capacity indoors by state mandate, Ducey said the state will provide $1 million to help them expand outdoor dining. Another executive order will make it easier for them to expand onto sidewalks and other public rights-of-way.
Arizona has recorded about 341,000 total coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. LaBaer said ASU modelers estimate that about 65,000 people in the state are currently infected. And the situation is only getting worse.
LaBaer said there could be 200,000 active cases when the current wave of infections hits its peak, which he expects sometime between late January and early February.
“The numbers there are pretty daunting,” LaBaer said.
As a result, Arizona is starting to run perilously short on hospital beds and personnel for COVID patients, LaBaer said. During the summer spike in infections, one of the worst in the country at the time, Arizona was able to bring in nurses from other states to help care for the influx of patients. With the rest of the country reeling from record numbers of coronavirus cases, that’s no longer possible.
Last month, Ducey announced that he was providing $25 million in federal funding from the CARES Act to hospitals so they could alleviate staffing shortages. On Wednesday, he announced $60 million more for staffing, which he said would allow hospitals to hire 500 more nurses through the end of the month, and other staffers through January.