Anyone older than 18 in Navajo County can now make an appointment to get vaccinated for COVID-19, with the risk still “high” but cases continuing to decline.

“We’re getting consistently fewer cases every 24 hours,” Health Director Janelle Linn on Tuesday told the Navajo County Board of Supervisors. “This is the one-year anniversary of our COVID response. We have suffered 518 deaths and 1,612 hospitalizations (from COVID). Our hearts go out to them.”

Navajo County Board Chairman Daryl Seymore said, “it’s the tough times that we have that help us appreciate so many of the good things. May we all learn from this — surely, it takes the wind to make a tree strong — and to make it survive. Make this a year we can be proud of, a year that we’ve been scared of and a year where we’ve met the challenge.”

The vaccine rollout continues to make steady progress, with Navajo County’s vaccination rate closely tracking the statewide average — now that it has moved from the high-risk groups to the general public.

Linn advised anyone seeking a shot to make an appointment through the COVID dashboard on the county’s website or by calling the Navajo County Public Health Office or the county’s health care partners like Summit Healthcare. For assistance in making an appointment, dial 211 or call 844-542-8201. Libraries can also help people register for a vaccine appointment.

So far, about 30,000 county residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine, including about 11,000 who have received both shots.

However, public health experts say that the US will need to reach “herd immunity” before the pandemic’s under control. That will likely come when 80 or 90% of the population has either recovered from an infection or been fully vaccinated.

Moreover, health experts are desperate to press forward with vaccinations before new strains of the virus can displace the current, dominant strain. Evidence shows the new strains can spread more easily and in some cases cause more serious disease. Some may reduce the protection offered by either a vaccine or a previous infection. The sooner we reach the relative protection of herd immunity, the less danger the new strains pose. Vaccine manufacturers are already working on booster shots to improve protection against the new strains.

Nationally, about 2.5 million people are getting shots daily — including both the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer vaccines and the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine. At the current pace of vaccinations, half of the US population will be vaccinated by May 11 and 90% by July 29.

However, we won’t reach the relative protection of herd immunity unless most of the 30% of people who say they don’t plan to get a shot change their mind. Polls suggest the number of people who don’t want the vaccine has been declining as people see friends, family and coworkers vaccinated.

In the meantime, the federal Centers for Disease Control has warned people to wear masks in public, practice social distancing and avoid “superspreader” situations, like groups of people in places like concerts, bars, restaurants where people talk loudly in indoor spaces — often without wearing masks and socially distancing.

The CDC has also issued new guidelines for schools, suggesting schools can operate safely in person if they practice universal mask wearing, maintain at least three feet between students in classrooms and avoid large group activities — like crowded sporting events.

Linn noted that so far schools in the county have reported about 600 positive cases. However, teachers who want to get vaccinated have had the opportunity to get the shots. Once teachers are vaccinated, they no longer have to quarantine if they’re a close contact of a person who tests positive, dramatically reducing the disruption caused by even a handful of cases on campus.

As of March 22, the county continued to report about eight new cases per day — a rate of about 7.2 per 100,000 residents. That’s a 60% decline from the average two weeks ago. The county has continued to average about one death per day for the last week. The county’s still considered at “high risk.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, some 16,000 people have been infected in Navajo County — roughly 14% of the population. This suggests perhaps 40% of the population now has at least partial protection against a new infection as a result of at least one shot of a two-dose vaccine or the recovery from an infection.

Neighboring Apache County still qualifies as “very high risk,” with about 8 cases per day. The smaller population in Apache County means that the infection rate remains a worrisome 12 per 100,000 — which is still a 69% decrease from two weeks ago. At least 14% of county residents have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. The number of deaths has declined from about 3 per day to less than one per day in the past three weeks.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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