SHOW LOW — The COVID-19 superspreader event at the White Mountain Dance Hall underscores the consequences of the faltering vaccination campaign in Apache and Navajo counties.
Reportedly 14 of the 70 people who attended a dance at the hall on May 18 have tested positive for COVID-19, including perhaps four people who had been at least partially vaccinated. The case demonstrates the continued ability of the pandemic to spawn clusters of infection when people socialize and gather in large groups, especially with close contact, singing and other social activities.
Off the record reports from local physicians indicate more that 20 people in the Show Low/Pinetop-Lakeside area who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, recently have contracted COVID-19.
Navajo County health officials did not return requests for comment, so it’s unclear whether samples from those who tested positive have been genetically sequenced. New, faster-spreading variants now dominate in Arizona — mostly the Alpha strain that battered England but now also the Delta strain that devastated India.
TGen and several university labs sequence a small sampling of the virus in new cases, with 26,000 samples sequenced so far. The Alpha variant accounted for half of the samples for the week of June 21 and the Delta strain for 15%. However, the Delta strain had accounted for just 3% the week before. The sampling’s consistent with the experience of other countries, where the Delta strain quickly dominates.
The Alpha strain spreads 60% faster than the original strain — and the Delta variant appears to spread at least 50% more easily than the Alpha.
Both appear more likely to cause more serious illness and death — and the Delta strain appears to infect younger people and children more readily. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines work against both those strains, especially when it comes to preventing serious illness. Some studies suggest that the protection may drop from 95% to about 80%.
State health officials say almost all of the rising number of new cases in Arizona have been among the unvaccinated — including 95% of the 17,000 cases reported in May. Studies show that one shot provides about 40% protection and two shots provide 95% protection. The vaccine appears to provide broader and more long-lasting protection than simply recovering from an infection, so health officials urge even those who have gotten sick and recovered to get vaccinated. Fortunately, growing evidence suggests the current vaccines provide long lasting protection.
Still, reports suggest that four people who got infected at the dance hall had been vaccinated — a surprisingly high percentage compared to the national data. This raises questions about whether those people were infected with a strain that’s better able to evade the protections of the vaccine.
Health officials say the spread of the more virulent strains simply underscores the need to get vaccinated as soon as possible — even if you’ve recovered from an infection.
“It’s all about the percentage of persons that have been vaccinated,” wrote Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association. “one infected person can infect a lot of people in an indoor environment like that with heavy breathing.”
That’s especially true in Navajo and Apache Counties, now suffering a surge in new cases — even as cases continue to decline in most of the country.
The state department of health services reports that only 17% of Apache County residents and 29% of Navajo County residents are fully vaccinated, despite much higher vaccination rates on the reservations.
New cases in Navajo County have risen 51% and in Apache County by 25% as a daily average in the past two weeks. Case numbers in neighboring Coconino County have exploded, rising 275% in the past two weeks. By contrast, cases in neighboring Gila County dropped 34%.
Hospitalizations have increased 314% in both counties. The new case rate is 11 per 100,000 in Navajo County and 7 per 100,000 in Apache County — compared to a statewide rate of 8 per 100,000.
Statewide, cases have risen 21% — compared to a 15% decline nationally.
Navajo County now has 11 new cases per 100,000, one of the highest rates in the state. Apache County has 6.6 cases per 100,000. The highest rate in the state is 17 per 100,000 in Coconino County over the past two weeks. The national average currently is just 3 per 100,000 and the statewide average is 7 per 100,000.
Nationally, the overwhelming majority of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are now occurring among people who have not been vaccinated.
The national Centers for Disease Control has tracked about 10,000 new COVID-19 cases among people who have been vaccinated. That’s consistent with the clinical trial results showing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines provide 95% protection against infection. The vast majority of vaccinated people who do get infected have a mild case.
The White Mountain Dance Hall cluster represents one of the few reported cases in which several vaccinated people got infected at the same event. However, the large percentage of unvaccinated people in the dance hall underscores the dangerous lack of vaccinations in the general population.
The so-called breakthrough infections have become so rare nationally, that the federal Centers for Disease Control now tracks only breakthrough infections among vaccinated people who die or end up in the hospital. Reportedly, one of the people infected at the Linden dance hall has been hospitalized.
In May, 853,000 Americans were hospitalized due to an infection — including 1,200 people who had been vaccinated. So vaccinated people now account for 50% of the population, but just 0.1% of hospitalizations and about 0.8% of the deaths, according to an analysis of the data by the Associated Press.
The CDC reports that a total of 750 fully vaccinated people have died after contracting COVID-19, but at least 142 of those deaths were not related to the infection. Some 4,000 people have been hospitalized with a breakthrough infection, but 1,000 of those were hospitalized for something other than COVID-19.
Nationally, 63% of those older than 12 have gotten at least one shot and 53% are fully vaccinated. In Arizona, 50% have had one dose and 40% are fully vaccinated. Gila County’s doing a little better than the state average, but Apache and Navajo counties have faltered.
Public health officials are worried that the relatively low vaccination rate among people in their 30s and 40s will prompt many parents to forego the vaccine for their kids, leading to fresh outbreaks when school restarts in August.
Some evidence suggests the Delta variant more readily infects children and young adults and may cause more serious illness. The Delta strain accounts for about 20% of new cases in the US and has doubled in the past two weeks. Other countries where the Delta strain has become dominant have seen outbreaks in schools and an increase in seriously ill children. The mutations in the Delta virus appear to hide the virus from the fast-acting, front-line immune system cells that dominate immune systems of children. This may give the Delta variant an edge when it comes to infecting children, who have so far been less likely to contract COVID-19 or get seriously ill when they do.
Because of the resistance to getting the now free and widely available shot in places like Arizona, the nation will not hit the Biden Administrations goal of 70% vaccinated by July 4. At the current pace, we might not reach that threshold until December — if ever. The number of people getting their shots has fallen from about 3.4 million a day in April to more like 800,000 a day nationally. Rural counties like Apache, Navajo and Gila have had to turn away offered doses from the state for lack of people seeking the vaccine.
Health officials worry that if parents don’t get their teens vaccinated before school restarts, cases on campus may take off — causing fresh clusters in the community.
Arizona Health Director Dr. Cara Christ said, “people continue to get seriously ill and die from COID-19, which is tragic when there are safe, highly effective and free vaccines widely available around the state. Having as many people vaccinated as possible will reduce transmission of COID-19 and in the process reduce the development of variants like Delta. If you have yet to be vaccinated, I hope you’ll do so to protect yourself, your family and your community.”