HOLBROOK — As COVID cases inch upward, Navajo County health officials have renewed their call for people to stay home if they feel ill and wear masks in public when they do venture out.

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“We continue to see a rise in cases and our partner healthcare facilities are starting to see an increase for both flu and COVID,” said Navajo County Public Health Director Jeff Lee at this week’s board of supervisors meeting.

“Overall in Navajo County, we’ve done a good job of following the CDC recommendations — but we’ve let our guard down a little and now we have to do better,” said Lee.

Statewide, COVID cases have increased by 46% in the past two weeks and hospitalizations have increased by 21%, according to national databases. Deaths have actually decreased by 13% in that period. That’s partly because death rates generally lag a month behind infection rates. However, improved treatments in hospitals have also cut the death rate for the most seriously ill.

In Navajo County, the case count has surpassed 6,300. In the past week, the 210 new cases represent an infection rate of 189 per 100,000.

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In Apache County, the total number of infections has passed 3,885. In the past week, the 104 new cases represent an infection rate of 145 per 100,000.

Both Navajo and Apache counties have infection rates well above the state average of 100 per 100,000. However, they’re doing better than the current hotspots – including Greenlee, Graham, Coconino and Gila Counties.

Both Navajo and Apache Counties are wobbling when it comes to meeting the state’s benchmarks for school openings, which include infection rates, the percentage of positive tests and hospital visits.

Navajo County remains below the threshold in all three categories — but has been drifting upward according to the State Department of Health Services website. However, those posted figures date back to the week ending Oct. 4. The odds are the county has since broken the barrier for even “moderate” spread.

Apache County’s doing even worse. As of Oct. 4, the county no longer met the infection rate threshold for even hybrid school reopening, based on “moderate” spread of the virus in the community. The state department of health services showed the county also poised to cross into the “widespread” category for the percentage of positive tests. The hospitalization numbers remained below the threshold for minimal spread – at least based on the week ending Oct. 4.

In Navajo County, several schools have reported cases, with substantial exposures of children on campus. The St. Johns School District has had positive cases that exposed 100 students and staff to the virus and is weighing whether to shut down at least for a time next week.

Moreover, county health workers have been finding an increasing number of workplace clusters.

“We are linking many cases back to a situation in which someone went to work when they didn’t feel well and it ended up being COVID — and they spread COVID throughout that workplace,” said Lee.

So stay home if you don’t feel right — and make sure to wear a mask when you can’t socially distance out in public.

“We need to socially distance not only in public — but at work,” said Lee. “We’re finding more and more situations where people are not following those guidelines as closely as they have in the past.”

Moreover, people seem increasingly reluctant to help health officials by identifying all their close contacts, which remains crucial to containing outbreaks and growing clusters of cases.

“We’re starting to experience more and more situations where we have confirmed, positive cases that aren’t willing to share the information we need to break the chain of transmission,” said Lee.

The precautions can slow the spread of the virus until a vaccine is approved and distributed.

Lee noted that the county meets with doctors and hospitals several times each week to work out the plans to vaccinate as many people as possible once the vaccine is cleared for public use in the U.S. He hopes that will come before the end of this year, but if issues arise in the phase III clinical trials for several vaccines, the vaccine may not become available until next spring.

“We’re working very closely with our state and local partners to make sure that when the vaccine is available, we have our process in place so we can deploy the vaccine to our communities,” said Lee.

“The timing of the vaccine is unknown right now. There is a possibility it will be available by the end of the calendar year — and that’s what we’re planning for. But that’s based on the successful vaccine trials continuing. If there are any hiccups, it will push the date back further.”

About half a dozen vaccines are currently in the midst of phase III clinical trials, testing both whether the vaccine can prevent or soften an infection and whether the shots might cause rare adverse reactions that would only show up in trials with 20,000 or 50,000 people. Several vaccine trials have been paused — then mostly restarted — after someone in the trial developed possible side effects. It is common to stop and start such trials to investigate such cases. Often, the problem proves completely unrelated to the vaccine.

Historically, it takes 5-10 years to develop a safe, effective vaccine against a virus. For instance, researchers still haven’t developed a vaccine that will prevent infection with the AIDS virus. However, the billions of dollars invested in the search for a COVID vaccine could well produce results in just a year from the onset of the pandemic.

Russia has already started distributing a vaccine without completing Phase III trials. China is reportedly closer to approving a vaccine than the US.

Lee noted that hospitalizations have begun a worrisome rise once again and doctors, nurses and other healthcare professions continue to struggle with a shortage of gloves.

Statewide as of Oct. 22 some 83% of the state’s adult intensive care beds were in use, but COVID patients accounted for only 11% of the hospitalizations. The situation has improved since mid-July, when 92% of the intensive care beds were in use, with COVID patients account for 57%. Still, the total number of beds occupied and the share of COVID patients has been inching upwards steadily since late September.

Fortunately, Lee said the county has enough test kits on hand that anyone who wants a COVID test can get one. He said doctors, hospitals and clinics are also working to obtain new tests that can yield a result in 15 minutes. The tests aren’t as accurate as the nose-swab test. But they’re better for rapid screening in places like schools and in trying to pinpoint clusters, since it can take two days to a week to get results for the swab tests from a laboratory.

National studies and epidemiological models suggest the US tests a much lower share of its population than countries that have gotten the pandemic under control. Throughout most of the pandemic, the US has focused on testing people with symptoms while people without symptoms or a documented exposure to a positive case have more trouble getting tested. Studies suggest widespread, rapid testing remains one of the keys to preventing the development of clusters of cases that seem to be driving the pandemic.

One study found that the pandemic has been driven by “super spreader” events, perhaps because perhaps 30% of those infected never develop symptoms and never realize they’re spreading it. The virus seems to spread mostly through the air during close contact, especially when people are crowded together, talking loudly and not wearing masks.

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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