New COVID-19 cases in Navajo County have fallen sharply in the past week or two and the initially halting effort to vaccinate high-risk groups has picked up steam, County Health Director Janelle Linn reported to the board of supervisors Tuesday.

This week the county was reporting 12 to 30 new cases daily, compared to 100 to 150 new cases at the peak of the surge in January, she said.

“That’s a big improvement,” she said, although the county’s 110,000 residents have suffered 449 deaths and more than 14,000 cases since the start of the pandemic.

In the past two weeks, Arizona has seen a 58% decline in new cases, a 4% decline in deaths and a 29% decline in hospitalizations from the January peak, which may have been caused by the great mixing of households over the holidays.

Navajo and Apache counties still remain among the counties with the highest infection rate — although the rates have been cut in half from the peak. The most recent numbers put the two-week infection rate in Navajo County at 48/100,000 — the highest in the state. Apache County’s rate stands at 44/100,000 — which is about the same as Maricopa County. Neighboring Gila County has a rate of 38/100,000 and Greenlee County has the lowest rate in the state at 17/100,000.

Fortunately, new, more infectious strains of the virus have yet to become widespread in Arizona, said Linn.

At least three cases of a variant first identified in England have now been confirmed in Arizona, said Linn. Studies suggest the variant spreads 30 to 70% faster, but does not cause more serious disease in those it infects. The existing vaccines also appear to remain almost as effective against that new strain.

However, doctors remain on the lookout for other new strains, including one first found in Brazil and one that apparently originated in South Africa. Those strains may cause more serious symptoms, and may prove better at evading the immune system and reducing the effectiveness of vaccines. Some studies suggest vaccines that are 95% effective against the current, dominant strains may prove only 50% or perhaps 70% effective against the South African strain, which may be 20 or 30% more likely to prove fatal.

So far Arizona’s only reported the strain from Great Britain. A new California strain is also more easily spread and may also be circulating in Arizona.

“The vaccines are still adequate to cover these strains. I feel like we’re in a good position when it comes to looking for these strains,” said Linn.

Still, the federal Centers for Disease Control concluded that the faster spreading strains will dominate in the US sometime in March or April. That means we’re in a race to get the population vaccinated as quickly as possible, before the new, fast-spreading strains cause another lethal peak in infections.

Fortunately, the slow-to-start vaccination effort has gathered speed.

“We have vaccinated 11,161 people in Navajo County and 1,874 people have completed their second shot,” said Linn. “That’s encouraging to us. Our main problem is not having enough vaccine. We have resources in place to quickly push that out once we get a steady supply of vaccine.”

Navajo County as of Feb. 8 had a vaccination rate of 10,104 per 100,000 residents, close to the state average. By contrast, neighboring Apache County had the lowest rate in the state — 6,070/100,000. Gila County has a rate of 14,261/100,000.

Statewide, the rate stands at 12,800/100,000 and nationally at 12,923/100,000, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Greenlee County has the highest rate in the state at 24,530 cases per 100,000 in population — more than twice Navajo County’s rate and four times Apache County’s, based on the numbers maintained by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

The statewide vaccination program has also picked up speed. Arizona so far has given a first dose to 9.6% of its residents and a second dose to 2.3%. Only about six states have done significantly better at this point, including neighboring New Mexico where 12% have gotten one dose and 4.2% a second dose. Nationally, 32 million have gotten one shot and 10 million the full two-shot dose, according to the CDC.

In many areas, roughly 10% of the population have recovered from an infection and another 10% have been vaccinated. That’s still far short of the 70% to 90% protection rate needed to acquire “herd immunity,” which will finally slow the spread of the virus to a crawl — allowing the resumption of normal life. Until then, precautions like avoiding large groups, wearing masks, staying home if you feel ill, social distancing and other precautions are the only way to slow the spread until vaccination efforts reach the bulk of the population, likely sometime this summer.

Rural counties started receiving doses of vaccine a week later than Maricopa and Pima counties. The number of doses received each week has fluctuated wildly. The Moderna vaccine used here must be kept super cold before use and the vaccine goes bad within an hour of opening the vial. This means counties and their healthcare partners have to make sure they have people lined up to take every single shot as soon as they open a vial, which has complicated planning.

The county’s working its way through the high priority groups, including healthcare workers, public safety workers, front-line essential workers like teachers and those over 75. Once the county gets enough doses, it will open up for those over 65 and adults with high-risk conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.

The county has done the groundwork to open up “pods” in almost every town in the White Mountains, including two centers in Show Low. Until then, healthcare partners like Summit had mostly handling the vaccination clinics.

However, the county needs to get a steady supply of 3,000 to 4,000 doses each week from the state to open those “pods.”

So far, shipments from the state remain well below that level and unpredictable from week to week.

Gov. Doug Ducey has threatened to cut the allotment for counties that don’t use up all the doses they receive each week, which has put additional pressure on counties to administer shots as quickly as possible. This has resulted in a sometimes-chaotic process, that lurches from week to week.

The number of doses administered each day has nationally increased from about 900,000 daily on Jan 19 to about 1.5 million doses a day on Feb. 9. At the current pace, we won’t vaccinate 70% of the population until Sept. 15. So far, Arizona has administered about 68% of the 1.3 million doses it has received — putting the state right in the middle of the pack.

Linn hopes that process will smooth out in the coming weeks, as the vaccine manufacturers ramp up and the state and federal governments smooth out the supply chain. Some counties have moved into making appointments for anyone over 65, but that varies from week to week and site to site in Navajo County. Many frustrated residents have been calling endlessly seeking appointments. Some have been driving to the valley trying to get shots at one of the mass vaccination sites there, including an around the clock site at a football stadium.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamela Harris this week made national headlines by taking a virtual tour of that around-the-clock Phoenix mass vaccination site.

Biden praised the site as a national model, although the site’s offering far fewer doses than it could due to a limited supply.

Biden during that virtual tour vowed to increase the supply nationally. “We’ve now been able to go out and talk with vaccine manufacturers. They’ve upped significantly the commitments to the amount of vaccine they’ll produce. And things are beginning to click. People are beginning to feel that they can find a way to get the vaccine.”

The site in the State Farm football stadium in Glendale is administering 350 to 400 shots per hour or about 9,000 per day. The state hopes to increase the pace to 12,000 shots per day. The difficulty of booking appointments had compounded the impact of the shortage of vaccine.

The state operates another mass vaccination site in the Valley at the Phoenix Municipal Stadium near the Phoenix Zoo, but it doesn’t operate around the clock.

The Arizona Department of Health Service this week submitted a fresh appeal to increase the state’s vaccine allotment by 300,000 doses a week. Arizona senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly both supported the request, hoping that their status as swing-state senators who remain the key to Democratic control of the Senate would lend the request extra weight.

Linn said the county has lined up sites and staffing for vaccination pods in almost every community in the county, including Snowflake, Pinetop, two sites in Show Low and other sites throughout the county. The county has completed training the people who will operate the sites in how to handle the delicate Moderna shot. The county’s also working with the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe to coordinate efforts — although the reservations are generally doing better than other communities with help from Indian Health Services and a separate vaccine allotment system.

Navajo County Board Chairman Daryl Seymore said “it’s worthy of note that we are among the top five counties as far as the distribution of vaccine — although I know the Navajo Nation is ahead of us in terms of what they’ve done. It’s a great effort by our team. We’re doing as good a job as we possibly can.”

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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