Navajo County continues to lead the way in a fresh surge of COVID-19 cases, reflecting a relatively low vaccination percentage.

Navajo County has seen 26% increase, to an infection rate of 90 per 100,000. Hospitalizations have increased by 9%, with roughly two deaths per day.

The situation is actually much worse than it looks for southern Navajo County, where most of the new cases and deaths are concentrated. That’s because the off-reservation portions of the county have a vaccination rate of about 39% compared to a rate of 70% on the reservation.

The Navajo Reservation has experienced its own, smaller surge — but many of those cases have been linked to off-reservation contacts. The hospitalization and death rate remains lower — consistent with studies showing the vaccine protects against serious illness and death even when there’s a breakthrough infection.

Only tiny Greenlee County has a higher infection rate in the state — 110 per 100,000, with a 74% increase in the past two weeks. Not surprisingly, Greenlee County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state — about 38%.

Fortunately, neighboring Apache County has made some big gains — with a 56% decline to 45 infections per 100,000. However, hospitalizations have increased 5%, with more than one new death per day.

The figures suggest the vaccines do reduce the odds of infection — but don’t eliminate it entirely. They do seem effective in preventing hospitalization and death — with the unvaccinated accounting for most serious illnesses. Epidemiologists say the virus remains a stubborn opponent since it spreads readily, even when people don’t have symptoms and don’t know they’re infectious. That’s why experts say only reaching a high percentage of vaccinations will ultimately control the pandemic. Vaccinations combined with the share of the population that has gained partial immunity by recovering from an infection will eventually provide the protection of “herd immunity.”

Schools have seeded clusters of new infections throughout the state, with the resumption of in-person classes and the decision to drop many protective measures — including mask mandates.

The Payson school district’s one of the few districts in the region that each day posts the number of new cases as well as the close contacts required to quarantine for 10 days. In the past 10 days, the district has reported about 100 new cases and nearly 300 close contacts. That means that on most days nearly 17% of the students are affected by a COVID-based quarantine, compounding learning losses racked up during the months of distance learning.

Fortunately, the federal Food and Drug Administration has not only approved vaccines for children age 5-18, but booster shots for high-risk adults.

The federal government says so far about 1 million children ages 5-12 have gotten the vaccine, which is not required to attend school but strongly recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and most disease experts. Schools might be able to require the vaccine once it moves from an emergency use authorization to the same kind of approval granted to other vaccines, like measles, polio and others. The vaccine has proven safe and effective in clinical trials involving hundreds of thousands of children, but the FDA won’t grant full approval until it monitors reactions and effectiveness for millions of doses.

The federal government has also approved half-dose booster shots for adults older than 65, people in high risk occupations that involve a lot of public contact and people with high-risk medical conditions – like diabetes. The FDA is expected to approve booster shots for all adults before Thanksgiving.

Global health officials have protested that recommendation, saying high risk people in other countries should get shots before low-risk Americans get a booster shot. The US has offered free vaccinations for months, but often cannot get people to get the shot before the vaccines expire.

In Payson, people can get a free booster shot — or an initial shot — without an appointment at the Wal-Mart pharmacy. Safeway, Walgreens and the County Health Department are providing shots with an appointment.

An estimated 25 million Americans have already gotten booster shots, which studies suggest boost immunity, which declines over time. The boosters also provide enhanced protection from faster spreading strains like Delta. The FDA authorized the Pfizer booster, which can be used even if the initial shot was Moderna or Johnson and Johnson.

Moderna has also submitted a request for approval of its booster shot. The FDA is expected to approve that application – perhaps with an exception for use in younger men. Some studies have shown an extremely rare inflammation of the heart muscle in that group. It’s still a much less serious side effect than the impact of the virus. Roughly 11 out of 100,000 men ages 16 to 29 have developed myocarditis after the shot, with the cases usually being mild and short term — but sometimes very serious. It’s not certain the shot is the cause of the inflammation, but the figures have raised concern.

People who got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine are also urged to get the Pfizer booster shot, since studies show mixing vaccines might actually provide more protection. Moreover, the Johnson and Johnson single-shot vaccine appears to provide less protection than the two-dose series of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

One study in Israel published in the scientific journal Lancet found people who had the booster shot had a 92% lower risk of severe disease and an 81% lower risk of death than those who had only the initial two-shot series. The study compared 730,000 people who had received the booster to those who got only the initial two doses. The median age of people in the study was 52, but it included children older than 12.

Studies in the US suggest that the initial shots provide 95% protection, but that declines over time to perhaps 50% to 70%. The booster shot restores that initial 95% protection against serious illness and death — with a somewhat lower protection from infection.

It’s unclear at this point whether protection from COVID-19 will eventually require annual booster shots, much like the far less effective flu vaccine.

The 1 million children ages 3-12 who have already gotten the shot represents only about 3% of the eligible children. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found only 27% of parents say they’ll get the shot for their children right away — while a similar number say they won’t get the vaccine for their kids.

Children face a far lower risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19 than adults if they get infected with the COVID-19 virus; however, they can readily spread the virus to more vulnerable adults even if they don’t have symptoms. Schools have generated many clusters of cases with the resumption of in-person classes. Epidemiologists worry that family gatherings over the holidays can easily drive an even bigger surge if children and their parents aren’t vaccinated.

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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libertyminded

The originator of Quantum Theory, Max Planck (1858-1947) observed that:

"A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

-Max Planck

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