HOLBROOK — COVID-19 is dropping across the nation, but it continues to surge in Apache and Navajo counties, Navajo County Health Director Janelle Linn reported this week.

Navajo County has seen a 68% increase in new cases in the past two weeks and now has an infection rate twice the state average and almost four times the national average.

The county reported 324 new cases last week, compared to 240 the week before. New cases continued to accelerate this week. By Tuesday, the county already had 83 new cases for the week. The county has been reporting two to six deaths per week for the past six weeks.

Unfortunately, schools are now reporting a growing number of cases, including 69 last week compared to 24 the week before, said Linn.

“We’re seeing a significant increase in the spread of infection in schools,” said Linn.

Nationally, cases have dropped 13% and deaths by 12% in the past two weeks as a daily average. Of course, even with that decline — the nation continues to report 73,000 new cases and 1,346 new deaths daily.

However, the county suffered a 43% increase in new cases and a 170% increase in deaths in the past two weeks as a daily average, according to federal Centers for Disease Control figures.

Navajo County has reported a whooping 68% increase in cases and a 31% increase in hospitalizations. Apache County has seen a 38% increase in cases and a 46% increase in hospitalizations. In both counties, the new cases are concentrated in the poorly vaccinated and off-reservation communities in the south.

Navajo County’s infection rate has risen to 73 per 100,000 and Apache County to 52 per 100,000 — compared to a statewide average of 37 and a national average of 22. Navajo County’s infection rate is tied with Greenlee County for the highest rate in the state.

The rising infection and death rates have mostly impacted poorly vaccinated areas of each county. Statewide, 57% of residents have gotten at least one shot. But in the non-reservation portions of Navajo County, only 39% have gotten at least one shot as well as just 30% of Apache County residents.

Fortunately, the vaccination rate in all three counties has ticked upward in the past two weeks in response to the rise in cases, as well as clusters in schools.

Linn urged residents to get vaccinated. The shots are available for free from the county and many of its health partners — including most pharmacies.

In addition, booster shots are now available for Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson vaccines. The half-dose booster shots for those over 65 and those in front-line jobs that involve increased exposure significantly boost immune response, with minimal side effects.

She noted that almost all of the cases of serious illness and death have been among the unvaccinated. Last week 62 people who had been vaccinated did test positive. However, they all had mild symptoms more like an allergy than a potentially life-threatening disease.

“Case counts continue to be significantly higher in low-vaccinated communities,” said Linn.

On the highly vaccinated White Mountains Apache reservation, doctors have reported an uptick in cases. However, most of those cases involved people who lived off-reservation in poorly vaccinated communities, said Linn.

On the other hand, vaccinated people who do get infected can continue to spread the disease, which is a big problem for schools.

“So we’re really encouraging people to stay home if they’re sick. Many people suffering mild, allergy-like symptoms are turning out to have COVID-19 – and they’ve been out and about spreading infection. So stay home if you’re sick — even if you’re mildly ill,” said Linn.

A cluster of cases among players in the Blue Ridge High School Football team forced the cancellation of a football game on Oct. 15.

Blue Ridge Superintendent Mike Wright appealed to parents to carefully monitor symptoms and keep their children home if they have symptoms like a fever, cough, sore throat or flu-like symptoms.

“The positive cases of COVID-19 in our schools and county have recently increased substantially. The problem is especially evident at our elementary school. Both students and staff districtwide have felt the effects. Therefore, given the potential of exposure, all Blue Ridge students and employees are effectively on symptoms watch. If any are ill, they must remain home,” he said in a letter posted to the district’s website.

“Next, given the sheer number of infections reported and the sharp increase locally, we need your help! Parents, please evaluate your children for symptoms daily. One particular concern is fever. A temperature of 100.3 degrees or higher is an indicator of potential infection. In such cases, please have your student tested for COVID-19 and keep them home until they are no longer infectious and symptom-free.”

If the surge continues, he warned, the district will implement Stage 2 restrictions, which involve “moving from one-to-one classroom teaching to group learning in open lab settings. However, considering the number of teachers currently out of service, we may soon need to combine students by grade level or subject matter and provide group instruction in lab settings.”

If that doesn’t work, the district may have to return to distance learning — despite the big loss in academic progress that has attended the shift to online learning in the past.

Students 12 to 18 can now get the vaccine, but vaccination rates remain very low among student and parents. The federal Food and Drug Administration has also approved a lower-dose version of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-12. This followed clinical trials demonstrating the vaccine had minimal and fleeting side effects on children. Although children face a relatively low risk of serious illness or death if they do get infected — studies show clusters on campus can easily spread to family members and out into the community. That’s especially true when unvaccinated kids attend group events, like football games, assemblies or other on-campus gatherings.

Doctors worry about the spread of on-campus clusters during the Thanksgiving holidays, when children will mingle with older relatives still at risk of severe illness and death.

This week, the district provided free vaccinations for students, families and staff at the district board room — as well as booster shots for people who finished their initial round of shots six months ago.

“If you have not been vaccinated, we strongly urge you to do so. If you qualify for a booster shot – we encourage you to get one. Most importantly, our hearts go out to the families who have lost loved ones. To all such, we express our deepest sympathies. Our prayers are also with those hospitalized fighting for their lives. May God help us move through these most difficult days together,” said Wright.

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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