COVID-19 has exploded in Apache and Navajo counties, prompting health officials to urge people to take extra precautions and assume they were exposed if they gathered with multiple households over Thanksgiving.

Navajo County Health Director Jeff Lee told the board of supervisors this week that just since Nov. 10 cases have increased by a third, from 6,881 to 9,056.

Navajo County in the past seven days has averaged 100 cases per 100,000 and Apache County 91 cases per 100,000. That’s just above the statewide average of 81 per 100,000 and well behind Yuma (143/100,000) and Santa Cruz (166/100,000) counties — but still far above the national average.

“We are in a very dangerous place due to the current, extremely high COVID transmission levels, and limited hospital capacity,” said Lee. “Any additional surge will compromise COVID patient care, as well as medical care overall. All states and counties must work to flatten the curve now, in order to sustain the health system for both COVID and non-COVID patients.”

Hospitalizations have skyrocketed to more than 2,982 on Dec. 8 — approaching the peak of about 3,400 back in July. As of Dec. 8, 90% of the state’s intensive care beds were in use — about 44% of them for COVID patients.

Lee said the danger’s much greater for anyone older than 65 or those with health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, compromised immune systems or obesity. He effectively recommended people in those categories stay home if at all possible and wear masks and practice social distancing if they venture out.

Since the start of the pandemic, people older than 55 have accounted for 88% of the COVID deaths in Arizona. Moreover, Native Americans have accounted for 10% of deaths — nearly double their share of the population.

“If you have attended any gatherings beyond your immediate household, you probably need to assume you have been exposed to COVID and need to be on high alert for symptoms,” Lee said. “If you are over the age of 65 or have significant medical conditions and you have recently gathered outside of your immediate household, you are at a significant risk for serious COVID infection; if you develop any symptoms, you must get tested immediately as the majority of therapeutic work best early in infection.”

Doctors have made great strides in treating COVID-19, after finding ways to deal with the blood clots, heart problems, inflammation and other side effects of the virus. However, if hospitals again become overcrowded and health workers overwhelmed the virus could wipe out some of the hard-won reductions in mortality.

Fortunately, the federal Food and Drug Administration this week approved the first COVID-19 vaccine, following the lead of Great Britain and Canada. The messenger RNA vaccine developed by Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech has been found more than 90% effective, with minimal side-effects that at worst feel like having the flu for a day or two. A similar vaccine by Moderna is also poised to win approval.

The U.S. has reserved enough vaccine doses to inoculate about 20 million people before the end of December. Healthcare workers and nursing home residents will likely get the first early doses — and perhaps essential, front-line workers like teachers. State and federal advisory panels are currently wrestling with the tough choices posed by the limited vaccine supply. Most agree that frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents should go to the head of the line. Nursing home residents account for 38% of the death toll so far. Next, some argue those in greatest danger of dying should go next – including the ill and elderly. Others argue the frontline essential workers — especially teachers — should go even before the most vulnerable to serous infection.

In any case, most people will have to wait until at least April or May to get the two-dose vaccine, assuming the U.S. can buy enough doses, given the global demand.

About 14 other vaccines are in Phase III trials to test safety and effectiveness, but demand for the vaccine worldwide would require billions of doses. The U.S. failed to lock in early orders for more than about 100 million doses of the two leading vaccines when they were in development. That would provide protection to 50 million people — roughly a third of the population. That could mean longer delays in getting enough doses to vaccinate the bulk of the population of 328 million. The leading vaccines require two doses to provide full protection.

Once 80 or 90% of the population has either gotten vaccinated or recovered from an infection, “herd immunity” will dramatically slow the spread of the virus — allowing the nation to return to near normal conditions.

In the meantime, residents must protect themselves by wearing masks, avoiding crowds and practicing social distancing, said Lee. He implored Navajo and Apache county residents to stay home if they feel even a little big ill. Even then, perhaps 30 or 40% of those infected may not develop symptoms — but can still infect others. So assume people you encounter are likely infected, even if they show no symptoms, say health officials.

“The silent community spread that continues to drive these surges can only be identified and interrupted through focused testing and must be combined with significant behavior change of all Americans,” said Lee. “Ensuring at all times we are physically distancing, wearing a mask in public, staying home when possible, and most importantly staying home when you feel unwell. We also need to understand the risks of attending ANY gatherings outside of our immediate households indoors without masks.”

In the meantime, the state and county health departments are planning a massive vaccination campaign — with the first doses for health workers and nursing home residents potentially available next week, he said.

“The vaccine is on the horizon, and will eventually help slow down the spread, but cannot just sit back and wait for the vaccine. We must act now, and we must be better with following the CDC mitigation measures. We continue to meet internally and with our community partners for vaccine planning, and when the vaccine is available, we are ready to quickly distribute and vaccinate the priority groups in a timely and equitable manner,” concluded Lee.

The state Department of Health Services website on Dec. 9 reported 103 new cases in Navajo County and five deaths for the day.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Navajo County has reported 9,152 cases and 283 deaths – with 38,000 total tests reported for the county of 110,000. Navajo County has a cumulative death rate of 251/100,000 population with 8,117 cases per 100,000. For the most recent period, 13% of tests were coming back positive.

Apache County on Wednesday reported 87 new cases and 4 new deaths, bringing the total for the pandemic to 6,037 cases and 204 deaths. The county had a cumulative death rate of 284 per 100,000 population out of 8,400 cases per 100,000. Roughly 11% of the cases are now coming back positive, indicating the widespread presence of the virus.

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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