Vaccination clinic

Gloria Neira of Florence receives her Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination April 2 at a drive-through clinic at Sun City Anthem Union Center. It was one of 1,685 COVID vaccines given in Pinal County that day. In all, more than 176,000 vaccine doses have been given in Pinal County, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

FLORENCE — Two months after they voted to reject it, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors will reconsider on Nov. 3 accepting a $3.3 million federal grant to bring COVID vaccines to underserved populations.

In response to a request from Supervisor Jeff McClure, R-Eagle Crest Ranch, the board heard more about the grant and who it is intended to serve from Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer and public health officials at Wednesday’s meeting.

Volkmer said it’s not a grant “in the typical sense,” in which the county must compete for the funds. It’s actually the sixth amendment to an existing grant.

The new amendment is intended to improve “vaccine equity” in racial and ethnic communities at increased risk of COVID-19, collaborating with other non-immunization-focused programs, Volkmer told the supervisors, who were sitting as the Pinal Public Health District board. Board member Kevin Cavanaugh, R-Coolidge, asked if there’s any evidence that Pinal County has unequally distributed vaccines.

Volkmer replied no, but there is inequity in those who have received the vaccine. Vaccines have been administered to 48.6% of whites in Pinal County, to about 15.7% of Hispanics, about 3.5% of Native Americans and 3.4% of Pinal County’s African Americans.

Whites account for 56% of Pinal County’s population. Hispanics are about 30.7%, Native Americans are 6.6% and African Americans are 5.4%.

About $350,000 of the grant would cover a “vaccine equity coordinator.” The remainder of the grant would pay for pop-up vaccination clinics and other services from third party providers, Volkmer said.

This is a federal grant that passes through the state. Cavanaugh asked if the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is appointed by the president, and if the director is following the president’s agenda.

“Presumably,” Volkmer replied. Cavanaugh asked if the Pinal County Health Department is required to follow CDC directives, including vaccine mandates the president may impose.

Volkmer replied that the county must fulfill its contractual obligations, be consistent with state law and follow the will of the board. The president doesn’t have direct authority over Pinal County public health, he said.

Cavanaugh asked if a “vaccine strike team” is part of the grant obligation. Volkmer said Pinal County has not suggested it will use this, but rather a mobile outreach unit.

In “call to the public” Wednesday, Noel Reck of Casa Grande urged the board, “Take the grant money and make it work for all of us.”

Three other speakers objected to the grant. “We need to stop big government,” Mary Ann Ewing of Oracle said. The board also had received five emails objecting to the grant.

The board voted 3-2 to reject the grant on Sept. 1. Tascha Spears, Pinal public health director, told the board at that time this new funding would help the county provide vaccines, noting people are already asking to book appointments for booster shots.

But Cavanaugh said it appears the vast majority of the grant would go to an as-yet-unnamed contractor, whose goals and purposes are unknown, except for “vaccine equity.” He also questioned the need for it, with at least 50 places in the county where someone can be vaccinated.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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