Buckle up.

And mask up.

This stuff’s getting real.

And the cavalry — in the form of a vaccine — won’t get here until late December — even for the highest risk populations. Apache County remains in the COVID hot zone, with Navajo County not far behind.

Both counties face a growing number of cases and no longer meet all the state, advisory benchmarks for in-person classes in school.

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Apache County had 93 cases per 100,000 in the past week as a rolling average, based on figures posted on Monday — one of the highest tallies in the state and nearly twice the statewide average. That’s well above the state and national average, but way better than the current national hotspots in Montana (189), Wyoming (119) or north or south Dakota (112).

The statewide average stood at 54 per 100,000, according to the rolling seven-day average figures posted Monday on the globalepidemics.org website.

In the past two weeks, Arizona cases have increased 62%, deaths by 24% and hospitalizations by 64%. Nationally, cases have increased 8%, deaths 26% and hospitalizations 36%.

The Navajo Reservation’s also dealing with a fresh surge of cases. Tribal leaders imposed a new, three-week lockdown starting on Nov. 16. The Navajo Nation reported 16,223 cases and 648 confirmed deaths as of Saturday and have again labeled the spread of the virus as “uncontrolled.” Statewide figures show that if infected, Native Americans are twice as likely to die from the virus as the general population.

Neither Apache nor Navajo counties are doing very well when it comes to the school benchmarks. The infection rates don’t match up to some of the national databases because the numbers are based on all the cases and tests reported for the week of Nov. 8, rather than a rolling daily average.

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Navajo County as of Nov. 8 had moved into the “red zone” for the “substantial” spread of the virus on two out of three measures. The county had 299 cases per 100,000 — three times the benchmark for “moderate” spread. The county had 13 % positive tests, compared to a threshold for “moderate” spread of 10%. The county met the criteria for “moderate” spread when it came to hospitalizations — 7.1% over a three-county area.

Apache County had even bigger problems. The county had an infection rate of 550 per 100,000 for the week and 13.8% positive tests — both in the red zone in which in-person classes aren’t recommended. The percentage of hospital visits stood at 7.1%, in the moderate zone.

Originally, the state’s guidelines suggest schools should hold regular, in-person classes only when all three benchmarks remained in the green zone, indicating minimal spread. The state has since modified its still purely advisory guidelines to suggest all three benchmarks would have to go into the yellow zone for “hybrid” in-person and online classes and into the red zone to suspend in-person classes altogether. By that measure, the recommendation suggests a “hybrid” schedule, to minimize the number of students who mingle during the school day.

Nonetheless, many districts in the two counties continue with in-person classes, without a significantly online component to reduce class sizes and student mingling. Even that meets the state guidelines, which makes the benchmarks purely advisory while leaving the decision up to the school board.

In both Navajo and Apache counties, only the relatively low rate of hospitalization of COVID patients qualifies the schools for “hybrid” online and in-person classes — although that hospitalization number reflects rates in a three-county, “central” area.

However, when it comes to the hospital — we have both good news and bad news.

The good news — the COVID-19 death rate has dropped significantly since last spring. At that time, the death rate was 6.7% of the people who tested positive. Now it’s 1.9%, according to national figures. In part, this reflects more widespread testing since the onset of the pandemic. But it also likely reflects the breakthroughs in treatment that have improved hospital survival rates. Doctors have learned how do deal with COVID’s weird side effects, like inflammation in the lungs, blood clots and other problems. They’ve learned to avoid ventilators in favor of less invasive responses to trouble breathing, like steroids, turning people on the sides and stomachs and other innovations.

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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