Vaccination rates down.
COVID-19 cases up.
That’s the unsettling picture that has emerged in the past two weeks, with Navajo, Apache and Gila counties all reporting relatively low vaccination rates and a reversal of the long, steady decline in new cases.
Statewide, Arizona’s still in the bottom third of states for vaccinations — with about 48% of the population receiving at least one dose.
The vaccination rates much lower in Apache and Navajo counties, if you exclude the Navajo Reservation.
Experts say faltering vaccination rates could account for the state’s 9% increase in new cases and 4% rise in deaths as a daily average in the past two weeks.
In Navajo County, new cases have risen from an average of three per day on June 8 to 13 per day on June 19.
The community spread combined with the age and co-morbidities in the population mean that Navajo County has a “very high” vulnerability level — higher than 84% of the counties in the US, according to the website CovidActNow, based on federal Centers for Disease Control Data.
Deaths have risen from about one every three days to one per day on average.
In Apache County, only 17% of the non-reservation population is fully vaccinated and cases have risen to an average of about 6 per 100,000 daily.
In Gila County, 49% of the population is fully vaccinated and the infection rate is about 6.6 per day per 100,000 population.
Some of the increase in new cases may stem from the spread of new, more dangerous and infectious strains in Arizona.
That includes the Delta variant, which caused a record surge in deaths in India — especially among younger people.
So far, genetic labs in Arizona have confirmed 49 cases of the Delta variant from India, 4,000 cases of the Alpha variant and 1,500 cases of the Epsilon Variant — all of which are roughly 60% more easily spread than the original strain.
Arizona’s not doing much to track the spread of the new strains.
Labs run the genetic analysis of the virus in 7% of the cases in Navajo County, but less than half a percent in Apache or Gila Counties, according to a tracking website maintained by Tgen (www.pathogen.tgen.org/covidseq-tracker/)
The more infectious variants now probably account for a third of the cases in Arizona, according to the online analysis.
Some of the variants appear more likely to infect children and young people and to cause more serious illness.
The current vaccines still work well against the known variants, with the protection levels dropping from about 95% to more like 80%.
However, the big drop in vaccination rates coupled with a full reopening of businesses and a sharp decline in the use of masks in public has given the new variants an opening — and begun to reverse a weeks-long decline in new cases.
The federal Centers for Disease Control has said people who are fully vaccinated can resume relatively normal life — both indoors and outdoors.
However, until vaccination rates reach 70 to 90%, everyone should avoid super-spreader events where large numbers of people are packed together and not wearing masks.
Moreover, people who have not been vaccinated should continue to wear masks whenever they can’t socially distance — especially indoors.
Although new infections remain far below the January peaks, the trend remains worrisome.
So health officials have renewed their pleas for people to get vaccinated.
Many pharmacies and doctor’s offices can now offer the free shots — often without an appointment.
Nonetheless, the pace of the nation’s mass vaccination program has dropped 60% in recent weeks and the nation now appears unlikely to reach the safety of herd immunity — with 80% of the population vaccinated — until late this year or even next year.
If the roughly 20% of people who say they won’t get the shot stick to their guns, we may never reach herd immunity and COVID will continue to circulate at low levels indefinitely.
The state says that about 95% of the new cases in recent weeks have been among people who have not been vaccinated.
Even when someone who has gotten fully vaccinated gets infected, the disease appears much milder — greatly reducing the risk of hospitalization or death.
Epidemiologists hope that the vaccination of teenagers will spur a surge before school reopens in August and that the federal government will soon approve a vaccine for children younger than 12.
Clearly, people who have recovered from an infection are less likely to get infected again — contributing to herd immunity.
Studies suggest recovery from infection provides lasting resistance — which is boosted further by getting the shot.
Apache County has so far reported 11,500 COVID cases in a population of 71,000.
That works out to about 16% of the population.
So do you add 16% to the percentage who have gotten shots to calculate herd immunity?
That depends on how many people who have recovered have also gotten vaccinated — since you don’t want to double count them.
Safe to say, we’re closer to herd immunity than just the vaccination rate indicates, but we don’t know how much closer.
In Navajo County, at least 16,500 have recovered from an infection – or 15% of the population.
So if 28% have been fully vaccinated and another 15% have recovered — the herd immunity rate might be close to 43%.
That’s still far short of the level at which new clusters can’t get a foothold and spread.
In Gila County, at least 7,000 have recovered from an infection — or about 13% of the population.
Add that to the 49% who are fully vaccinated – and you boost the total rate to 62%.
Unfortunately, that’s still far short of herd immunity.
So the key to finally ending the pandemic remains a high vaccination rate — especially with the out-of-control spread of the virus in most of the unvaccinated world.
The virus has shown an alarming ability to develop new, more dangerous variants — and the minimal vaccination rates in Africa, South America and many countries in the middle east and Asia provide lots of opportunities for the virus to evolve.
The state Department of Health Services tracks vaccinations by ZIP code and age groups.
The state’s website shows relatively high vaccination rates in Show Low and at best moderate rates in Pinetop, Snowflake and Winslow.
Unfortunately, vaccination rates are very low in the non-reservation portions of southern Apache County.
Statewide, 86% of those older than 65 have been fully vaccinated, compared to just 40% of those aged 15 to 34.
Vaccination rates generally rise steadily with age.
This means schools could become the focal point for new outbreaks when classes resume, given the relatively low vaccination rates among young kids and their parents. (www.azdhs.gov/covid19/data/index.php#vaccination-coverage-byage)
In Apache County, just 17% of the total population and a dangerously low 30% of those over 65 have been vaccinated, in the non-reservation portions of the county.
Curiously, 19% of those between the ages of 15 and 34 have been vaccinated — but only 11-14% of those aged 35 to 44.
That’s a very different pattern from most other counties.
Navajo County’s doing better — with 28% fully vaccinated, including 59% of those over 65.
That’s dramatically lower than the state average – but much better than neighboring Apache County. About 22% of those aged 15-34 have been vaccinated.