By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Insisting there's plenty of vaccine available, state health officials said anyone age 16 or older can begin signing up this week to get inoculated.
The move comes despite the fact that there continue to be problems with some people who already are eligible accessing the state web site to schedule even a first dose. Now there will be more competition for those slots.
Anticipate high demand for the next two weeks, state Dr. Cara Christ, the state's health director.
"And then it will slow down after that,'' she said.
Potentially more significant is that it scraps the system for some people who had been waiting their turn.
Until Monday, those who are 45 and older were next in line for priority, with Christ saying they would become eligible next month. Then those 35 and up would get their chance at the beginning of May.
And it wasn't until later in that month that everyone else 16 and older -- the minimum age allowed under the current standards -- would be able to get in line.
Now she said, there is enough vaccine and enough appointments so that anyone who wants to get immunized now can.
But not necessarily right away -- and not everywhere.
Christ said the first nearly 60,000 appointments will open Wednesday morning. And she expects them to disappear quickly.
Ditto with a new batch of 80,000 or more slots that opens up Friday.
"But as long as people are patient, they will be able to get a vaccine,'' she said.
There "where'' of all that is another question.
Christ said this will definitely apply at the mass vaccination sites run by the state in Pima, Maricopa and Yuma counties. And she said that pharmacies that offer the vaccine also will be taking on all eligible individuals.
She said, though, that counties that run their own vaccine programs may still stick with their priority system if they believe there is still high demand among those most vulnerable, whether by age, medical condition or occupation.
Oh, and there's something else.
Only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for those 16 and older.
The vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have been tested on -- and are approved for -- only those who are at least 18. That means anyone 16 or 17 has to be sure to sign up at a site offering Pfizer.
Christ appeared to be relieved at finally scrapping the multi-tiered priority system first approved when the vaccines became available. It set up a line based not just on age but where someone was living or what was the occupation.
"Some of those decisions on how to prioritize were just heartbreaking,'' she said.
"No one wants to have to activate a committee called the Vaccine and Antiviral Prioritization Advisory Committee,'' she said. "This is one of the first times we ever had to do that.''
Christ said it also recognizes what didn't work.
"When we were going to open it by age categories, what we identified is we were already meeting a large portion of those with chronic medical conditions that put them at higher risk,'' she said.
"But because of the age category, we weren't able to vaccinate those that lived with them or worked around them,'' Christ continued. "This will give us the ability to vaccinate entire families at the same time.''
And the fact is, she said, there are slots available that weren't anticipated.
For example, Christ said, some people were able to find earlier appointments. Then they were canceling the ones they already had made, to the tune of almost 3,000 a day.
Add to that, she said, is the anticipation that more vaccines will be available starting with the last week of March.
"What we're hearing is they're going to increase it by several million each week over the next few weeks,'' Christ said.
"We get about 2% of that,'' she continued. "So we're hoping that what that would give us is about 40,000 to 60,000 additional doses a week,'
That's on top of what the state is getting now: About 160,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, 130,000 of the Moderna inoculation and about 15,000 to 16,000 of Johnson & Johnson.
Part of what drove the decision to abandon the system, she said, is that there were indications it already was sort of falling apart.
Some of it is the fact the state was allow "plus-one'' inoculations: Anyone who showed up with an eligible person also was entitled to get vaccinated, regardless of that person's age or status.
Then there's the fact that some younger people also were getting the vaccine because they fell into other eligibility categories, like being a teacher.
And then there's the belief that there's soon going to be more vaccine than people who want it.
Christ figures there are about 5.5 million people who fit the age category. Of that, she said about 2 million already have been inoculated.
That leaves about 3 1/2 million. But Christ said that the response rate appears to be in the 55% range, putting the total people who will need the shots at 1 1/2 to 2 million.
Finally, even with the demand, there were still slots available each week, like the 60,000 this week.
"We were actually a little surprised that we still had that many appointments left,'' she said. "And that was at every state site across the state.''
So with vaccines available, Christ said it made sense to open up the eligibility in order to use the drugs "efficiently.''
That, however, still leaves issues with the state web site that some have found so frustrating when trying to set up an appointment.
"We continue to make enhancements to our web site,'' she said.
One is that appointments are saved as people fill out the forms "so they shouldn't be able to have them snatched out from under them which will be a big, huge help.''
Still, she conceded that it will remain hard to get an appointment for the next few weeks as demand will be high.