Youths 12 to 18 can now get vaccinated, another hallmark in the long, deadly struggle to turn back the pandemic.

Moreover, the federal Centers for Disease Control has offered the maddeningly reluctant one more reason to get vaccinated — a suggestion that the fully vaccinated to set aside their masks in most circumstances both indoors and outdoors.

The federal government approved the Pfizer vaccine for immediate use in children aged 12 to 16, after trials showed it provides almost total protection from symptomatic infection with minimal side effects similar to those found in adults — including in some cases fever, a sore arm, fatigue and a day or two of flu-like symptoms.

The CDC last week also gave fully vaccinated people the all clear to not wear masks indoors and outdoors, except in certain settings like hospitals, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, airplanes and public transportation.

People not vaccinated should continue to socially distance and wear masks in public, especially in areas like Gila, Apache and Navajo counties — which all remain at “high risk” for infection.

Meanwhile, the vaccination campaign has already begun to bear fruit – even though only 36% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Infection rates continue to drop all over the country, even in laggard Arizona — which now has ranks 33rd nationally for infections.

Nationally, the number of new cases has declined 31% to 11 per 100,000 in the past two weeks as a daily average.

In Arizona, the rate has dropped 13% to 9 per 100,000 — which is still producing 649 new cases daily. Hospitalizations have dropped 6% and deaths by 15%.

So far, 33% of Arizona residents have been fully vaccinated and 43% have had at least one dose.

The first dose of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine offers about 80% protection from infection, while the second dose boosts resistance to about 95%.

Still, current vaccination levels remain far below the threshold of “herd immunity,” when the pandemic will fade away and new infections from outside will have a hard time getting a foothold.

Still, even at current levels the vaccines have dramatically slowed the spread of the virus. By contrast, poorly vaccinated countries like India are suffering the worst outbreaks since the start of the pandemic.

Apache County remains one of the few places in Arizona where cases have continued to increase as a daily average in the past two weeks — up 8% to 8 cases per 100,000.

That works out to about six new cases per day. One in six people have recovered from an infection in the county, which is dominated by the Navajo Reservation.

Navajo County has seen a heartening 35% decline, to 9 cases per 100,000. One in seven people have recovered from an infection.

Gila County’s reporting a troubling 9% increase, but cases remain low at 4 per 100,000. Nonetheless, the county’s considered at high risk for new cases. One in eight people have recovered from an infection.

Even hard-hit Santa Cruz County — with 14 new cases per 100,000 — has reported a 210% decrease in the past two weeks.

Currently Yavapai County is dealing with the biggest surge in new cases – a 29% increase to eight cases per 100,000.

The overall decline in new cases comes despite the spread of new, more infectious variants throughout the state.

Epidemiologists have documented at least two cases of the virus that’s devastating India – which spreads faster, causes more serious illness and may prove more resistant to the vaccine.

The strain that devastated Great Britain — B.1.1.7 — has now become the dominant strain in Arizona.

It spreads 50% to 70% more easily than the original strain, thanks to eight different mutations in the spike protein the virus uses to infiltrate cells.

Nonetheless, the existing vaccines work just as well against that strain as against the previously dominant strain.

All of which means that only the steady progress in getting people vaccinated has prevented a new, even more dangerous spike as people begin to resume a more normal life and children return to in-person classes.

This makes the ongoing effort to vaccinate between 70 and 90% of the population critical to containing the virus, with new, more dangerous variants still evolving in the rest of the unvaccinated world and spreading readily to the US.

The tests demonstrated the vaccine is safe and effective in children aged 12 to 16.

People can sign up for teens right now and epidemiologists hope most children will get vaccinated before school resumes in August or September. If enough kids get vaccinated, school can resume not only in-person classes safely, but assemblies, sporting events, field trips, plays, happy playgrounds and long school bus rides.

Epidemiologists hope that clinical trial results will also result in approval of a safe and effective vaccine for younger children before school resumes in the fall.

Studies have shown that the virus rarely gets a foothold in elementary schools, both because children don’t mix with many people during the day and because younger children are less likely to get infected or spread the virus for reasons that remain unclear.

Clusters have developed in middle schools and high schools, spreading on campus during things like sports tournaments and then spreading to family members.

Nonetheless, most cases detected on campus have started in families and then come to school once children get infected in the home.

That’s why both parents and children should get vaccinated, say epidemiologists.

Children make up nearly 20% of the population, which means it will be very difficult to get 70% of the population vaccinated without also providing shots to most teens and children.

“Vaccinating children for COVID-19 is a key component to reaching the two-thirds threshold of herd immunity to stop the pandemic from continuing to spread and mutate, said Dr. Miguela Caniza, director of the St. Jude Global Infections Disease division.

“The emergency authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for ages 12 to 15 is an important step.”

She noted that because many teens and children don’t even have symptoms when they’re infected, they can unknowingly continue to spread the virus.

“The COVID virus has come to stay with us and our best defense is to achieve herd immunity. It is likely these vaccines will become part of the current routine childhood vaccines,” concluded the doctor.

In the meantime, the CDC has also provided another incentive for adults to get vaccinated with new advice on mask wearing.

Last week, the CDC changed its recommendation to suggest people who are fully vaccinated can forego wearing a masking both outdoors and indoors — with certain narrow exceptions.

People should continue to wear masks in hospitals and nursing homes, on airplane flights and in compliance with the requests of businesses – even if they’re fully vaccinated, said the CDC.

The CDC continues to recommend masks in places like prisons, jails, homeless shelters and public transportation.

Disease experts hope the recommendation will provide fresh incentive to get the shot among the 30 or 40% of the population who have expressed reluctance.

Only a third of the US population is fully vaccinated and only about half have received a single shot. Fortunately, some 80 % of those over 65 have gotten a shot — which likely accounts for the decline in the death rate nationally.

However, younger people can still easily get infected. Although their risk of dying is lower, they continue to die, suffer serious illness and serve as a reservoir for the continued spread of the virus.

Moreover, studies suggest that COVID causes long term medical problems for a majority of those infected, regardless of age.

The CDC issued a statement last week that said “The science is clear: If you are fully vaccinated, you are protected, and you can start doing the things that you stopped doing because of the pandemic.

Studies have shown the current approved vaccines are more than 90% effective at preventing mild and severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths — mirroring the findings of the initial clinical trials involving about 50,000 people.

One study of 6,710 health care workers in Israel — 5,500 of them fully vaccinated — found the Pfizer vaccine was 97% effective at preventing symptomatic infections and 86% effective in preventing asymptomatic infections.

This means the vaccine also dramatically reduces the chance you’ll get infected at all — which therefore means vaccinated people will very rarely spread the disease to others.

So far, studies show the current vaccines remain highly effective against the known variants. However, the companies that produced the current vaccines continue to work on making booster shots that can cope with whatever variants emerge.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at

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