Time’s running out to protect schools from becoming the epicenter of a fresh spike in COVID-19 cases when class resumes in August.

The virulent Delta variant is now the dominant variant in the country and other countries have reported a surge in the share of cases in young people — and outbreaks in schools. Although total new US cases have declined dramatically since the peak in January, young people now account for twice as large a share of new cases.

The Delta strain has been reported on the Navajo Reservation, the White Mountain Apache Reservation and locations throughout Arizona — with the number of new cases of the variant doubling and tripling every month. The virus in India has more easily infected young people and children and caused more serious illness, but still hits the elderly hardest.

Various studies suggest the Delta variant is roughly twice as easy to spread as the original strain. Moreover, one shot of the current vaccines provides only modest protection — while two doses provide excellent protection, according to recent studies. So far, only about 40% of Gila County residents are fully vaccinated.

That includes just 5% of those under 18, 26% of those aged 20 to 34 and 33% of those ages 35 to 44, according to the state department of health services. This means school age kids and their parents have little protection against the onrushing Delta variant.

Fortunately, about 68% of those over 65 are fully vaccinated, which could explain why although new cases are on the rise, deaths continue to decline.

Nationally, 48% of Americans are fully vaccinated, including 59% of those older than 18 and 79% of those older than 65.

In the past two weeks, new infections have increased by 60% nationally to 6 cases per 100,000 population, with about 11,000 new cases reported daily. Hospitalizations have increased by 11%, but deaths have decreased 27%. The reported increase in new cases comes despite a 14% decline in the number of tests administered.

Arizona’s infection rate is about 50% above the national average — and Gila County, Navajo and Apache counties all have rates close to the Arizona average. Mohave County has the highest rate in the state — about 20 per 100,000. Nationally, Arizona has reported the eighth highest infection rate in the past two weeks.

Arkansas, Missouri, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas have all reported a doubling or tripling of new cases in the past two weeks, with infection rates of between 10 and 23 per 100,000. That’s still far below the January peak, but much worse in most areas than a month ago before the Delta variant took hold.

It’s unclear whether the Delta strain will produce more serious illness. The variant has wrecked havoc in India and other countries, but that may reflect differences in the infection rate and the medical systems.

Fortunately, studies show that getting fully vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines provide strong protection against the Delta virus — and all the other “variants of concern.”

Unfortunately, the Delta variant appears better able to infect both those who have had only one shot and those who have recovered from an infection with the original strain and not gotten vaccinated, according to disturbing recent research. Last week, the Delta variant accounted for about 52% of new cases nationally. The Delta variant has not become dominant in Arizona yet, but experts say it’s only a matter of time.

This makes the effort to vaccinate kids 12 to 18 and their parents critical to the safe reopening of schools in August, say health officials. The federal Food and Drug Administration is expected to soon approve a vaccine for children ages 5 to 12, but the effort to convince parents to get children ages 12 to 18 vaccinated has been lagging — especially in Gila County. Statewide, some 13% of those 12 to 18 have gotten their shots, with Gila County doing less than half as well.

The Arizona legislature has barred mask mandates for students in schools, which means the vaccine remains the best way of preventing new cases on campus. Studies show that although children are less likely to get infected or seriously ill than adults, school campuses without mask mandates can still causes clusters of new infections.

So far, 4 million US children have tested positive for COVID-19, about 14% of reported cases since the pandemic began, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In the past week, children have accounted for 23% of new cases, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. So far in the pandemic, children have accounted for about 4% of hospitalizations and about 300 deaths — but those numbers may not hold up in the face of the Delta strain.

Schools cannot yet require children to get vaccinated to attend – as they can with many other vaccines. The existing vaccines have been approved for “emergency” use without the long-term studies of effectiveness and side effects other mandated vaccines have undergone. Nonetheless, Pfizer and Moderna have asked the federal FDA to give their vaccines regular use authorization, based on the safety and effectiveness data gathered in the field from the hundreds of millions of people vaccinated.

So here’s some of the recent research on the Delta variant, which is poised to become the dominant variant in the state.

• Scientists found that blood samples from fully vaccinated people easily neutralized dangerous new strains like Delta in a laboratory experiment. The researchers tested blood samples from 103 people, some fully vaccinated, some who had received one dose and some who had recovered from an infection but not gotten vaccinated. Two doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and AstroZeneca vaccine neutralized 95% of the new variants in laboratory experiments, according to research published in the journal Nature. However, the samples from people who had gotten just one shot neutralized just 10% of the new strains. Samples from people who had recovered from the original strain proved equally ineffectual against several of the new strains – including Delta. Moreover, the cocktail of antibodies from people who had recovered proved ineffective against Delta, rendering one of the more promising treatments ineffective.

• Vaccines — as well as recovery from infection — prompt a long-lasting immune system response, according to a study published in Cell Reports Medicine by researchers from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. Both the current vaccines and recovery from infection produced a lasting response in both Helper T-cells and Killer T-cells. These immune system cells are produced in response to antibodies and provide long lasting protection. They represent what amounts to a second line of defense, giving the immune system a lasting memory of previous infections. Some 20 laboratories throughout the world are cooperating to test the impact of vaccines on the rapidly emerging new strains of COVID. So far, the results are encouraging for the major vaccines. The response of the T-cells to the vaccine could help explain why even if vaccinated people get infected by the new strains, they’re less likely to get hospitalized or die.

• Research in a host of countries has now proved that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are highly effective in preventing symptomatic disease. Two doses of the vaccine proved 88% effective in Britain, 79% effective in Scotland and 87% effective in Canada against symptomatic infections by the Delta strain.

• On the other hand, a study in Israel found the effectiveness of the current vaccines against all strains of the virus have declined from 95% to just 64%. It’s unclear whether this measures the effectiveness of the vaccine or some change in the behavior of people, now that Israel has resumed normal life due to high vaccination rates. It might also reflect a difference in testing policies in Israel. Israel has a high vaccination rate and does widespread testing whenever a case is detected. This might mean that health officials are finding more infections without symptoms. The Israeli study concluded the vaccines still provide 95% protection against an infection serous enough to result in hospitalization.

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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