HOLBROOK — Despite one of the state’s highest vaccination rates, Apache County is reporting one of the highest increases in new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks.
Arizona has seen cases increase 4% as a daily average, but Apache County has reported an 89% increase — driven by new cases in south county where vaccination rates are much lower than on the reservation. The infection rate in the past two weeks has risen to 56 per 100,000.
Navajo County has actually seen cases decline by 23% as a daily average, with an infection rate of 37 per 100,000 — just below the state average.
Fortunately, despite the national surge in new cases, the scientific evidence continues to suggest schools can operate safely in person, especially if teenagers get vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff wear masks indoors in crowded situations.
Arizona’s infection rate of 43 per 100,000 compared to the national average of 40 per 100,000. By contrast, the hot spot states have infection rates between 50 and 107 per 100,000, including South Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, Wyoming, Tennessee, Texas and Georgia. Most of those states have vaccination rates far below the national average.
The rapid increase in Navajo County cases over the past month has turned into a welcome decline in the past two weeks. The county’s hospitalization rate has also declined — down 6% to 24 per 100,000. The county has a vaccination rate of 58% — but it’s much higher on the Navajo Reservation and closer to 34% in south county.
Apache County has gone the other direction — with a rising infection rate. The hospitalization rate has increased by 2% to 32 per 100,000. The lag in hospitalizations may reflect the protection from serious illness offered by the vaccine — even when it comes to the fast-spreading delta variant. Apache County’s vaccination rate is 68% — second only to Santa Cruz County with a vaccination rate of 85%.
Schools continue to struggle with the impact of the Delta variant, which spreads readily among children — although it’s much less likely to cause serious illness in the young.
However, the increasing number of clusters on campus pose a much greater risk for unvaccinated teachers, staff and family members than for the kids themselves, according to a growing body of research on the impact of COVID-19 infections on children.
That’s why the federal Centers for Disease Control has concluded that in-person class remains safe — providing schools take precaution like requiring masks indoors when students can’t socially distance. However, the Arizona legislature has barred districts from requiring masks — or requiring teachers and staff to get vaccinated.
The Delta variant has put a question mark alongside some of the reassuring research on COVID-19 and kids. Kids account for a much higher percentage of cases now. However, that could simply reflect vaccination rates among young adults. Only 18% of Navajo County residents living off reservations younger than 20 are vaccinated, compared to 46% of those 55 to 64 and 68% of those older than 65. In the non-reservation portions of Apache County some 24% of those under 20, 28% of those 55-64 and 36% of those over 65 are vaccinated, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
So here’s some of the recent research on why kids so rarely get seriously ill and how schools can operate safely. Most of these examples come from a research review published in the scientific journal Nature.
• COVID accounted for just 25 deaths among people younger than 18 in England between March of 2020 and February of 2021. About half of those deaths involved children with underlying problems, such as use of a feeding tube or trouble breathing. That compares to 3,105 total deaths among teens and children, which means the COVID death rate for children was 2 per million.
• A study of COVID-related deaths among children in seven countries documented 231 deaths between March 2020 and February 2021. The US has reported 471 deaths among teens and children as of June.
• An analysis of 57 studies in 19 countries found a very low risk of death among children with COVID-19, although things like obesity, heart problems or neurological conditions increased the risk. The team looked at 6,338 hospital admission for COVID-19 and found 259 children and teens treated in intensive care units.
• Children apparently avoid serious illness because they rely on what’s called the “innate immune system.” This immune system response relies more heavily on fast-acting, generalized cells triggered by interferon. Adults have a slower, more specialized immune response that relies on the memory cells of the immune system. Those studies suggest children do develop high viral loads and can therefore pass the infection along — but their fast-acting immune response apparently works better against COVID-19.
• Doctors still worry about long-COVID-19 symptoms that develop in about 14% of young people who test positive for the virus. In addition, some 3 out of 10,000 infected children and teens develop an inflammation called MIS-C, with often serious and sometimes fatal side effects. The inflammatory reaction may stem from an immune system over-reaction to an infection — in both children and adults.
• Worldwide, some 770 million children were still not in school full time by the end of June 2021. Some 150 million children in 19 countries had no access to online learning when schools closed. An estimated 24 million children will simply drop out of school before finishing as a result of the pandemic, according to estimates by the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO.
• A study in the US tracked 90,000 students and teachers in North Carolina for nine weeks last autumn. Based on the community rate of transmission, researchers would have expected to see 900 cases in that population. Instead, schools reported just 32 cases. That picture may have changed now that the Delta variant has become established nationwide.
• A study of 17 schools in rural Wisconsin documented 191 COVID-19 cases in staff and students in a 13-week period last autumn. Only seven of those cases appeared to have originated on campus — as opposed to students who got infected at home.
• Researchers in Norway conducted exhaustive testing of 13 confirmed COVID cases in children aged 5-13 in school. The researchers tested 300 of their close contacts. They found that about 1% of the child close contacts and 2% of the adult close contacts got infected — although that was before Delta entered the scene.
• A study in Salt Lake City tested 700 students and staff who had come in contact with 51 positive cases among students. Just 12 of those close contacts tested positive. Only five of the 12 infections were school-related — suggesting that students don’t readily spread the virus at school. However, the schools in question took protective measures, like requiring masks and social distancing.
• A study in Israel found the virus spread quickly on campus when school relaxed protective measures. Two students had 1,200 close contacts. Between 13 and 17% of those contacts tested positive. The cluster developed in May of 2020, before vaccines slowed the rate of spread — but also before Delta. The outbreak took place during a heat wave when schools allowed students to stop wearing masks and shut the doors and windows to use the air conditioning — which recirculated the air.
• Studies in Germany, France, Ireland, Australia, Singapore and the US have all shown very low rates of spread on school campuses — particular with the use of masks, social distancing and circulation of fresh air in classrooms.