After weeks of runaway increases, the latest COVID-19 surge appears to be slowing — especially in the highly vaccinated portions of Apache and Navajo county.

However, public health experts worry that the new, far-more infectious Delta strain has spread rapidly among children — unlike the strains responsible for the last big peak in January.

Navajo County has suffered a 50% increase in cases as a daily average for the past two weeks, according to federal data maintained by the Centers for Disease Control. That’s bad — but it’s better than the trend a week or two ago. The increases are concentrated in south county, where only about a third of people are vaccinated. The reservations have much higher vaccination rates. Overall, 57% of Navajo County residents are fully vaccinated.

Apache County has even better news to report. New cases have declined 7% as a daily average in the past past two weeks. The county has an infection rate of 36 per 100,000, compared to 48 per 100,000 in Navajo County and 44 per 100,000 statewide. Apache County has a 68% vaccination rate — which mostly reflects the big reservation population.

Off the reservation, Navajo County has a vaccination rate of just 39% and Apache county just 26%. If the White Mountains made up it’s own county — it would have among the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Navajo County has seen a 60% increase in hospitalizations and Apache County a 68% increase. That compares to a 26% increase statewide.

Navajo County continues to report about 20 new cases per day and Apache County about 10 cases a day — most of those in the White Mountains.

The latest surge has affected children and young adults much more than the three previous surges in new cases since the start of the pandemic. The virus has shown a curious tendency to surge, plateau, drop sharply and then surge again. The drops correlate only roughly with the various efforts to contain the pandemic, including lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccine campaigns.

The shift might reflect a difference in the way the delta strain spreads. Studies show the strain produces 1,000-times greater concentrations of the virus in the nasal passages and throat. This may account for why it spreads twice as fast. The evidence is also growing that the delta strain makes people sicker — and can more easily infect people who have been vaccinated or recovered from an infection with an earlier strain. Fortunately, the current vaccine still provides very strong protection against serious illness and death from the delta strain. The vaccine provides much stronger protection against delta than simply recovering from a previous infection, according to studies.

Public health officials say the key to containing the virus remains vaccination, which has now been certified as safe and effective for anyone older than 12. The Federal Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the vaccine for regular use for people older than 16 later this month — which could open the door to make the vaccine mandatory for high school aged students. The FDA continues to gather long-term safety data on use of the vaccine for those aged 12 to 16 and for children younger than 12. It may take another four months to gather and analyze that data, which means schools will have to operate for months without a vaccine for children younger than 12.

Unfortunately, until the latest surge caused weekly vaccination counts to rise – the vaccine campaign had all but stalled in the White Mountains.

The rise in cases reflects vaccination coverage by county. Counties with a much higher vaccination rates — including Coconino, Apache and Navajo Counties — have all seen cases dwindle at the same time cases in poorly vaccinated counties like Gila, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz and Yuma have soared.

In Navajo County, only 19% of those under 20 have been vaccinated, in line with the statewide average, according to the state department of health services website. That compares to 19% statewide and 25% in Apache County.

Even though Delta has caused more breakthrough cases — the unvaccinated still account for the overwhelming majority of hospitalizations and deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, children have accounted for 18% of cases in Arizona and 1% of deaths.

In Maricopa County, children now account for 6% of hospitalizations. Children account for about 25% of the infections in the latest surge in Maricopa County.

University of Arizona public health researcher Dr. Joe Gerald has reported a “profound” change in the number of kids getting infected by the Delta variant. In part, that’s because schools have resumed in-person classes with few precautions, reflecting a new state law that requires in-person classes but bars mask mandates and policies that encourage student and staff vaccinations. Elementary school students don’t have an approved vaccine available, but middle school and high school aged students do.

Public health experts and Arizona Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman have spoken out against the ban on masks mandates in schools. At least 14 school districts have ignored the new law and imposed mask mandates in classrooms.

“It’s devastating,” said Hoffman of the surge in cases among kids. “We don’t want any kids to be sick and we especially don’t want kids to be hospitalized. It is so important to do everything we can to protect them, including all the layered mitigation strategies.”

Despite the recent trends, kids are still far less likely to land in the hospital or die if they do get infected. However, doctors worry about the spread into the community as well as a still-mysterious inflammatory disease that develops in some children months after they have seemingly recovered from an infection. That inflammatory disorder causes very serious illness — even death.

One study in California demonstrated how easily the virus can spread on campus. In that Marin County case, a teacher in an elementary school class infected half of her students, according to a detailed study that included a genetic analysis of the strains each child carried. The teacher didn’t consistently wear a mask — and sometimes read aloud to the children without a mask. The children in the front two rows were much more likely to get infected than those in the back two rows. The children spread the infection to many family members and contacts in the community.

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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