The debate about when school should return to in-person classes has intensified, even as Arizona claims the crushing title as the nation’s COVID-19 hot spot and teachers line up for vaccinations.

Arizona this week claimed the fastest rate of spread in the nation, with a 38% increase over the past two weeks. Deaths have also risen 3% and hospitalizations by 17%. Arizona now has more than 561,500 reported cases and 9,064 deaths.

Every county in the state’s now in the “red zone” on the state school opening benchmarks, based on the number of new cases, the percentage of positive tests and hospital visits.

Apache and Navajo counties have both strayed far into the “red zone” when it comes to offering in-person classes. The state’s purely advisory guidelines are intended to help school boards determine whether the spread of the virus is “minimal” or “substantial.”

Both rural counties now have hit levels five or six times higher than the “minimal spread” rate recommended for in-person classes. That includes the infection rate, percentage of positive tests and hospital visits.

The bad news for schools comes with a dash of good news — as teachers this week began getting the first of two doses of the Moderna vaccine to protect them from COVID-19. The first shot confers 50 to 60% protection from the virus. A second shot generally administered three weeks later confers 95% immunity, with few side effects.

Unfortunately, Arizona has one of the slowest vaccine rollout programs in the nation, according to national databases — and vaccinations started a week later in rural counties than in Maricopa County. The federal government distributed the vaccine based on population rather than the current spread of the virus, which would have given Arizona a higher priority.

Even so, Arizona has actually administered only a fraction of the doses of the vaccine it has so far received.

Arizona’s superintendent of schools has urged Gov. Doug Ducey to issue a fresh executive order directing schools to remain in distance-learning status until the rate of community spread drops to safer levels.

“Given the severity of our state’s situation and the virus’s trajectory after the holiday period, Gov. Doug Ducey should order schools to remain in distance learning for a limited two-week period,’’ Kathy Hoffman said. And she told Capitol Media Services that opening schools immediately after the Christmas holidays given the level of infection is “reckless.’’

A spokesman for the governor said Ducey will not consider such an order, but will leave the decision on whether to return to in-person learning up to school boards, based on conditions in their community.

“This is a local decision, the online option is already available, and the governor has repeatedly made his preference clear: Kids have already lost out on a lot of learning and he wants schools opened safely,” spokesman C.J. Karamargin said in text message to the Arizona Republic.

Arizona cases have soared since schools still holding in-person classes shut down for the two-week holiday break. On Jan. 2, Arizona reported 17,222 cases, bringing the daily average to 8,895 new cases daily for the past week. That dwarfs the previous highest average of 7,700 in mid December and is nearly three times the peak in early summer.

The whole state has spilled over into the red zone, with 121 cases per 100,000 in the past week statewide. Apache County’s at 113 per 100,000 and Navajo County at 126 per 100,000.

La Paz County has the highest rate in the state at 191 per 100,000.

Statewide, deaths are peaking at about 90 per cay and hospitalized patients have hit an all-time high at 4,500.

Navajo and Apache counties as a whole are well into the red zone.

Navajo County has more than six times the infection rate for even hybrid classes designed to minimize the number of kids who mingle on any given day. The positive test rate is more than four times the level recommended for in-person classes and the hospitalization rate is more than five times the level recommended for in-person classes.

Apache County is doing only slightly better, with an infection rate five times the recommended level for in-person classes, as well as 4-5 times the recommended level for positive tests and hospitalizations.

Even those numbers are based on data that’s about two weeks old, with cases having risen 38% since then on a daily average basis.

Studies have shown that when community transmission rates are low, schools don’t create clusters of new cases — especially elementary schools. However, when the virus is widespread in the community — new clusters of cases can spread on campus when students gather for in-person classes.

The state and federal governments have essentially shifted the entire burden of deciding when to shift to distance learning on local school boards

Statewide, about 60% of the ICU beds are now occupied by COVID patients, with about 93% of the state’s ICU and regular hospital beds now in use.

Hoffman said the state should step in and require schools to remain closed for the next two weeks.

“Our teachers who are being asked to go teach in person despite the very high risk and high spread of COVID in the community are very fearful because they’re worried because if they get sick are they going to be able to get care in a medical facility,’’ Hoffman said.

Fortunately, teacher in Arizona qualify as “essential, front-line workers.” This means they can get a vaccine right after frontline medical workers and nursing home residents and staff get their shots.

So teachers began lining up this week. They’re in the 1-B category, which also includes childcare workers, public safety personnel and people older than 75 plus essential industry services and adults with high risk conditions living in group settings.

Despite the unexpectedly slow rollout of the first two approved vaccines, county health workers say they have enough doses for the 1A and 1B categories to get their first shot in the next few weeks.

It’s unclear when the county will receive enough doses for the next group, designated 1C. Those categories include adults older than 65, adults with high risk conditions like diabetes and adults living in group settings.

The Phase 2 group includes the balance of the general population, but they may not get a chance for a shot until sometime after March.

Health officials have been debating whether to provide more initial doses, even if it delays the second shot by weeks. Great Britain has already decided to give the first dose as quickly as possible in hopes of slowing the spread of a new strain of the virus that scientists believe is twice as infectious as the current, dominant strain. The strain of the more easily spread virus has already shown up in California and Colorado as well.

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

(2) comments

phxnative54

Gee, isn't Gov. Dufey doing a GREAT job?

longtimeresident

yuppers, at least Arizona is not at the bottom of the Covid infection list.

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