HOLBROOK — Navajo County Public Health Director Janell Linn this week issued an urgent plea to residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to contain an ongoing surge in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The virus continues to move through the community and into schools, carried mostly by the unvaccinated, she told the Navajo County board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The southern portions of the county have a vaccination rate of about 40 % — among the lowest in the state. By contrast, reservation communities have vaccination rates of 70% to 90%, she said.

As a result, almost all the new cases and deaths have been reported in the southern areas of the county. The vaccine has proven 95% effective against infections, although the delta strain is causing more breakthrough infections. However, even when vaccinated people catch the virus — they’re much less likely to get seriously ill and almost never die from it, she said. Studies show the vaccine also provides more protection than recovering from a previous infection.

The off-reservation communities in July had 304 new cases. That rose to 760 cases in August and more than 817 cases in September, she said.

“We were kind of hoping we were leveling off, but the last few weeks have led us to believe that may not be the case. Last week we had 140 new cases and 24 of those cases are linked to schools. About 63% of the new cases are in people under 40.”

She said the vaccine provides “phenomenal coverage. You can see that in the burden of disease. We don’t have many cases on the reservations.”

As of Tuesday alone, the health department had documented 59 new cases — seven of them linked to schools. The county has also recorded four deaths from the virus on Tuesday.

“We are reporting data again on the data dashboard — we had kind of let that slide. Now we’re updating every Monday from the week before,” said Linn.

She noted sorrowfully that “we are having higher mortality rates with this surge — and deaths typically lag a few weeks behind due to vital statistics. We’ve had 12 new deaths off tribal lands in the past two weeks.”

She noted that the federal Food and Drug Administration has now recommended booster shots for people who got the Pfizer vaccine. A booster shot of the Moderna vaccine may be approved shortly.

Most people in Navajo County have received the Moderna vaccine.

The county health department recommends that people older than 65 who had their last shot of the Pfizer vaccine six months ago should get a booster. That includes all residents of long-term care homes, which have been experiencing a fresh surge and remain most at risk for death. People with underlying medical conditions of any age can also get a booster. People in high-risk settings, like health care, jails and other places where lots of people mix can also get boosters.

“We are hoping to see some recommendations for Moderna in the near future,” she said.

She said the official recommendation suggests people don’t mix vaccines. However, some studies have shown that boosters that mix different vaccines —including the Pfizer — may get even stronger protection.

Figures complied by the National Centers for Disease control show new cases in Arizona have declined 3% as a daily average in the past two weeks to an infection rate of 34 per 100,000. However, cases in Navajo County have risen 14% to 31 per 100,000. Cases in Apache County have risen just 1% to 23 per 100,000.

Hospitalizations have risen 3% in Navajo County and dropped 8% in Apache County. This likely reflects the much larger share of unvaccinated people in the non-reservation portions of Navajo County.

Arizona continues to report an average of 43 deaths per day, with Navajo and Apache counties each reporting roughly one death a day.

Nationally, doctors report 118,000 new cases daily and 2,000 deaths.

Disease experts say the pandemic has now killed 1 in 500 Americans, with essentially uncontrolled spread continuing. The latest surge in new cases and deaths remains a pandemic of the unvaccinated — especially when it comes to hospitalizations and deaths. Only abut half of the population nationally has been fully vaccinated.

Some 700,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, with 43 million infections reported. The pandemic has lowered the US life expectancy by about 16%, knocking nearly two years off the average lifespan. The pandemic now ranks as the third leading cause of death in the country — behind heart disease and cancer. COVID-19 kills more people annually than the combined toll of accidents, diabetes, the flu, pneumonia and suicide.

The pandemic has killed 1 in 35 people older than 85 and one in 780 of those between the ages of 40 and 64.

Native Americans, blacks and Hispanics have suffered an even higher toll, mostly because of pre-existing conditions, less access to healthcare and lower vaccination rates. That has changed among Native Americans in Arizona, with reservation communities rallying around the battle cry of “protect your elders.”

The pandemic now reflects vaccination rates nationwide. Early in the pandemic, big cities had far higher infection rates than rural areas with crowded conditions, large minority populations and other factors leading to faster spread of the virus. As a result, Democratic-run areas suffered the most in the early stages of the pandemic. But most of those areas now have high vaccination rates and much lower infection rates. The pandemic has increasingly shifted to many rural states with Republican control. The degeneration of the vaccination campaign into a partisan issue has left Republicans far less likely to get the shot than Democrats. A Pew Research poll recently found 60% of Republicans have gotten at least one shot compared to 86% of Democrats.

Arizona’s 48th nationally when it comes to vaccination rates, according to a recent summary of national data published on the Wallet Hub website. Only Texas, Georgia and Mississippi are doing worse.

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

(1) comment

JEG

So frustrating, however southern Navajo County has a better vaccination rate than southern Apache County, which is at 27%! And face masks are rarely seen.

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