PHOENIX -- Citing medical risks, state health officials are now making COVID-19 vaccines available for adults at least 55 years old.
The move comes as state Health Director Cara Christ tells Capitol Media Services those in that age group are far more likely to die from the virus. She said they also are more likely to have medical conditions that place them at severe risk.
Monday's move, which Christ calls a "hybrid'' model, is a sharp departure from the priority system set up by the Department of Health Services.
Under that system, vaccines are generally now available to anyone 65 and older. So are health care workers, teachers and child care workers.
More to the point, the old system said people who did not qualify due to age or occupation would not be in line for a vaccine until other groups were served, even if they have a high-risk medical condition. That put them behind not just those who now qualify but those who were next in line, the "front-line essential workers'' in industries like food service and agriculture and those who deal with the public like funeral directors and bank tellers.
And people without high-risk medical conditions who did not meet the current 65-plus age criteria would be even farther down the priority list. Now that's changed.
But Christ said the date of actual availability will depend on vaccination rates in each county.
Specifically, Christ said a county has to have provided at least a first dose of the vaccine to at least 55% of those 65 and older before they can open the doors for those in the 55-plus age group. She said Maricopa County has hit that threshold, which is why, beginning Tuesday, the state-run sites at State Farm Stadium and Phoenix Municipal Stadium will start taking appointments.
By contrast, she said, Pima County is only at 47%, a figure she called "pretty close.
Others, however, are far off, like Mohave County where fewer than 20% of those 65 and older have been inoculated.
Christ said, however, there is a workaround of sorts.
"Say that they hit 52% (of those 65 and older) and nobody's signing up for appointments,'' she said. "If a county feels that they've met the demand they can move on to the next group earlier than that.''
But as long as there is a demand from those 65 and older, Christ doesn't want vaccines offered to those younger than 65 to use up the supply.
Agency spokesman Steve Elliott said the fact that some counties are now eligible to provide vaccines to those 55 and up does not mean anything is being denied to other counties.
He said each county gets its own allocation based on population. So the doses being given out at the two state-run sites in Maricopa County are from that county's share of the vaccines and do not cut into the supply elsewhere.
And he noted that the state-run sites use the Pfizer vaccine because they have the facilities to keep it at the sub-zero temperatures necessary; rural counties have been shipped the Moderna vaccine which can be kept in regular freezers.
Elliott also said that some rural counties may have run short recently because of delays in the Moderna vaccine linked to the storms in Texas, though he said they should now be back on schedule.
Christ said the change to make the vaccine available to those who are younger is justified.
"What we're seeing is that the data is show us that as you move up in groups of 10 years it significantly increases an individual's risk, regardless of chronic medical condition, for hospitalization and death,'' Christ said. "It made sense to move to an age-based prioritization.''
What is also does is sharply cut the wait time for those 55 and older.
The next priority that had been set to open for vaccines was Phase 1-B.
That includes those front-line essential workers. Christ said that is a "huge group,'' likely more than a million Arizonans.
Also in the next category were adults with high-risk medical conditions, but only if they were living in a congregate care setting like a nursing or assisted-living facility.
"It was going to take us quite a while before we even got to 1-C,'' she said. Reaching that phase would have opened the door to adults of any age with chronic medical conditions.
And if you're 55 or older but didn't have an underlying medical condition? The old system put you in Phase 2, a group that would not be eligible for even a first dose until something this spring or summer.
Now they won't have to wait that long.
"We're going to start going 55-64, all adults, whether you have a chronic medical condition or not,'' Chris said. And she figures that make sense, given the number of people in that age group that have medical conditions, rather than forcing them to wait.
The new system also sets the stage for vaccines for even younger people.
Christ said the same rules would apply: When a county gets at least 55% of people age 55 and older vaccinated, then it can open the doors to those 45 and older. And so on.
There's something else in the changes Christ announced Monday.
She said that counties that have sufficient supply now will have the ability to vaccinate those front-line essential workers who, under the current priority system, are not yet eligible. These are the people who serve the public directly, like grocery store employees, funeral directors, bank employees and utility workers.