The vaccine works.

COVID cases and deaths in the US have plunged.

The vaccines are widely available, free and safe — at least in the US.

And that’s why life in the US looks increasingly normal, even as the vaccine hits terrible new peaks in nations without access to the half dozen safe and effective vaccines.

So if the vaccine’s so great — why have daily doses administered in the US dropped from 4 million daily in mid-April to about 1.23 million? Epidemiologists say the fact 41% of the nation’s population is now fully vaccinated largely accounts for the 45% drop to about 17,000 new cases and about 356 deaths per day. A total of 51% have gotten at least one shot.

However, only 36% of Arizonans are fully vaccinated and 46% have received at least one dose. Perhaps that’s why the state’s still reporting about 540 new cases daily — a decline of just 4% from two weeks ago. In Arizona, deaths have actually increased by 13%, to about 8 per day.

And yet, Arizona can’t give the shot away — with some 60,000 doses of the three approved vaccines about to expire.

Elsewhere, people are desperate for a vaccine to cope with a pandemic that’s still killing 12,000 people every day.

The link between vaccination rates and new cases holds true in Northern Arizona as well.

In Navajo County, 41% have gotten fully vaccinated, including 67% of those over 65. The county’s beating the state average, thanks mostly to the 60% fully-vaccinated rate on the Navajo Reservation. Nonetheless, Navajo County’s still reporting 10 new cases per 100,000 residents – one of the highest rates in the state.

Compare Navajo County to neighboring Apache County. There, 51% of all residents have been fully vaccinated, including 78% of those over 65. Again, the high vaccination rate on the Navajo Reservation accounts for a good portion of that result. The infection rate in Apache County has declined to 2 per 100,000 — one of the lowest rates in the state.

Meanwhile, the news just keeps getting better for the vaccinated.

For starters, the virus continues to mutate. The strain that has ravaged India is about 50% more contagious than even the strain that forced Great Britain into a second lockdown. The Great Britain strain is dominant in Arizona now, but the Indian strain seems poised to displace it. Fortunately, the current vaccines work almost as well against the new strains as they do against the original.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both prevent 95% of infections. So if 80% of Americans get the shot, the pandemic will just fade away in the US. Even new cases brought in from a country would create just isolated clusters — mostly among the 20% who didn’t get the shot. A relative handful of people who have been vaccinated have suffered “breakthrough” infections — but they have generally had only mild symptoms.

Better yet, research now shows that the vaccine — gives long lasting protection. Early research showed that an infection — or the vaccination – generally provided very high levels of fast-acting, protective antibodies. However, those fast-acting antibody levels dropped rapidly after a couple of months. This prompted epidemiologists to worry we would need frequent booster shots to maintain immunity. However, scientists have now determined that the virus also activates long-lasting memory B cells, in the bone marrow. These memory B cells also produce antibodies, which can prevent a second infection. Even eight months after an initial infection, the memory B cells continue to produce anti-COVID-19 antibodies. So the vaccine could produce lifelong protection, according to a summary of the research published on May 26 in the scientific journal Nature.

In addition, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have now been shown to provide nearly 100% protection against the virus for teenagers, with only minimal side effects like fever, fatigue and a sore arm. This means parents can get their children fully vaccinated before school resumes in-person in the fall, getting the nation closer to the 80% threshold of “herd immunity.”

Both Pfizer and Moderna have now asked the federal Food and Drug Administration to provide full, regular licensing for their vaccines. Currently, all the available vaccines have been granted “emergency use” authorization. They still had to pass all of the tests of safety and effectiveness in clinical trials, so they’re not “experimental.” However, the FDA normally requires at least a year of follow up data on people in the original clinical study before granting regular authorization. This ensures no rare, long-term side effect develops and that the vaccine provides lasting protection from infection. The vaccines have not been proven in the field, confirming the safety and effectiveness data from the clinical trials.

Once the current vaccines move from “emergency use” to regular authorization, schools, businesses, the military and others can require the vaccine. This could provide another big boost towards achieving the protection of herd immunity.

Still, a declining, but still significant number of people say they’re unlikely to get the vaccine. At present, 52% of Americans have gotten at least one dose. However, only 9% of adults who haven’t yet gotten the shot say they definitely plan on getting vaccinated, according to a national survey in early May by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vaccine Monitor. If that figure holds and those same adults don’t get their kids vaccinated, the nation will not reach the relative safety of herd immunity. Smaller outbreaks will continue, especially if new, more infectious strains enter the country from unvaccinated countries.

Fortunately, the resistance to the vaccine continues to slip, according to the Kaiser Foundation survey. The percentage of adults who said they will “definitely not” get the vaccine fell to 20% in May, compared to 29% in March.

The percentage saying they’ll “wait and see” remained at 15%, with another 6% saying they would only get a shot if required to do so by an employer.

Among parents, 33% said they’d get their children vaccinated right away, 26% said they’d wait and see how things went, 18% said they’d only have their children vaccinated if the school required it – and 23% said they wouldn’t get their child vaccinated. Some 11% of fathers said they were “extremely unlikely” to get their kids vaccinated and about 25% of mothers.

One other state-by-state study by the Harvard School of Public Health examined the major reasons people say they won’t get the shot. The four major categories included:

• 8% — watchful, waiting to see what happens next.

• 9% — worried about the cost in money and time.

• 4% — Don’t trust the system to treat them fairly.

• 14% — COVID skeptics, who don’t believe the threat exists.

The study said the hardest people to convince will likely be those who don’t believe the virus poses a threat and those who don’t trust the medical system.

Unfortunately for Arizona, the COVID Skeptics make up a much larger share of the people who haven’t gotten the shot here. They’re dominated by white Republicans and people with certain religious beliefs. Arizona has a large share of these skeptics, along with North Dakota, Idaho, Nevada, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

“Covid skeptics are at the far end of the spectrum as the least likely to get vaccinated. The primary barrier for people in this group are their specific, deeply held beliefs about COVID-19. Everyone in this group believes at least one conspiracy theory related to the pandemic, whether it’s that microchips are implanted with the COVID vaccine; COVID-19 has been exploited by the government to control people; or that the pandemic was caused by a ring of people who secretly manipulate world events,” wrote Sema Sgaier, one of the study’s authors.

For instance, the US is now taking a deeper look at the theory the virus originally escaped from a Chinese medical lab in Wuhan, rather than from a wild-animal market selling bats. Neither theory has been proven definitively. However, the theory that a lab worker got accidentally infected by a modified coronavirus was initially advanced by some medical experts and then promoted by then-President Trump. Some other researchers dismissed that theory and the mainstream media gave it short shrift. News that a lab worker came down with COVID-like symptoms at the start of the pandemic and China’s resistance to an open investigation has prompted the Biden Administration to now take the theory more seriously.

Arizona also has an unusually large share of the “cost-anxious” reluctant to get the vaccine. This group not only worries about paying for the shot – which is generally free – but about taking time off work. Mississippi has the most people in this category — 23% versus a national average of 9%. Other states with an above-average share of the “cost anxious” include Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Utah and Texas. All of those states have a higher percentage of the population without medical insurance than the national average.

Arizona has fewer people in the other two categories of the vaccine hesitant — including the “system distrusters” and the “wait-and-see” group

The study suggests Arizona will have a hard time reaching herd immunity, given the large share of hard-core COVID skeptics.

However, we might also make progress among the “cost-anxious” by making the vaccine as widely available and easy to get as possible.

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

Horse Rider

People who have been vaccinated are safe both from catching COVID and from infecting the unvaccinated. The latter will continue to suffer although not as badly as they would if no one were vaccinated. I feel sorry for those too young to be eligible (yet) for vaccination and for those who, for valid medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated.

I would like to hear more about the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. That's what my wife and I received because it was the first available to us.

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