Three steps forward.

Two steps back.

And so goes the pandemic.

Pfizer this week announced data it has submitted to the federal Food and Drug Administration shows that its COVID-19 vaccine provokes strong immune response among children ages 5-11 with only fleeting side effects. This could lead to the approval of the vaccine for younger children by the end of October.

On the other hand, a new poll out this week shows that despite the surge in new case and deaths due to the Delta variant — some 20% of Arizona residents say they have no intention of getting the vaccine.

The news comes amid signs that the latest surge in cases in Arizona has at least plateaued, with Navajo and Apache counties both enjoying heartening declines.

In Navajo County, cases rose 2% as a daily average in the past two weeks. However, the county’s 38 per 100,000 infection rate’s only slightly above the statewide average of 35 per 100,000. Nonetheless, the county’s still reporting about 30 new cases per day and one death, on average. About 60% of county residents are fully vaccinated — but that mostly reflects high vaccination rates on the reservations. In southern Navajo County, only about a third are fully vaccinated.

Apache County’s doing better, thanks to a higher vaccination rate countywide. In the past two weeks as a daily average, Apache County has reported an infection rate of 26 per 100,000 — well below the state average. The average has declined by 56% as a daily average in the past two weeks. Again, the reservations have much higher vaccination rates and much lower infection rates than south county — where only about a third of residents are fully vaccinated.

Statewide, the surge in new infections declining by 17%. The overwhelming majority of the new infections have been among the unvaccinated and almost all of the deaths and serious illness.

The latest news on the safety and efficiency of the vaccine among children offers fresh hope of getting back to normal in schools, where students suffered months of learning loss due to distance learning and school closures. Children account for about one in five new infections nationally, a far higher percentage than in earlier surges. Some 30,000 children were hospitalized with COVID-19 in August nationally and doctors fear children in the latest surge may also suffer from the rare, but potentially fatal, multi-system inflammatory syndrome, months after recovering from the initial infection.

The Pfizer data — not yet published or peer-reviewed — compared the impact of the shots on 2,268 children ages 5 to 11 to the effects of a placebo shot on a similar number of children. Not enough children got infected to calculate the ability of the shot to prevent an infection. However, the children who got the shot generated a strong immune response — which means they would probably get the same protection as adults — in whom the vaccine prevents 95% of infections. The children in the trial suffered only mild and fleeting side effects — including fever, flu-like symptoms, fatigue and sore muscles at the site of the injection.

The younger children had about the same reaction to the shot as teens 12 to 18 years old, who have also been approved for the shot. It will take months of additional data-gathering before the authorization for children goes from “emergency use” to regular use. At that point, schools could mandate the shots, just as they do for other childhood vaccines.

The children received about a third of the dose given to adults, due to their smaller body mass.

However, the positive results of the vaccine in children in Arizona was partially overshadowed by news that a solid 20% of Arizona adults say they don’t plan on getting the shot, despite the fresh surge in cases. Republicans were far more likely to refuse the shot than either Democrats or Independents, according to the results of the OH Predictive Insights poll. Fortunately, 70% have either already gotten the shot or say they’re willing. When combined with the number of people who have recovered from an infection, vaccinating 70% of the population would likely enable the state to reach the protection of herd immunity — when means fresh cases would sputter and die out rather than causing another surge.

The poll of 1,000 Arizona residents was conducted between Sept. 7 and Sept. 20 and has a margin of error of about 3% either way.

About 46% of resident say they’re very or moderately concerned about the pandemic and about 35% say they’re slightly or not at all concerned. Unfortunately, the people least concerned are also the most likely to refuse the shot, even though almost all of the hospitalizations and deaths are now among the unvaccinated.

Only about 52% of those polled think the pandemic will get better in the next 30 days, a big increase in the levels of pessimism in the past six months.

Among the unvaccinated, 60% said the Delta variant surge has not affected their willingness to get the shot. However, 22% said they’re more likely to get the shot now. Weirdly — 18% said the Delta variant surge makes them even less likely to get the shot.

Interestingly, 48% of Arizona residents approve of Gov. Doug Ducey’s handling of the pandemic — even though half opposed the governor’s ban on mask mandates in schools and 57% oppose his threat to withhold money from schools that impose a mask mandate.

“Most respondents, especially those without children, believe that schools should have the power to decide whether students wear masks,” concluded the poll. “The strongest belief that schools should make decisions regarding mask mandates is found among Democrats (80%), Hispanic adults (68%), postgraduates (68%), and Pima County residents (67%). The opinion that parents should make decisions regarding mask mandates is likeliest to be found among Republicans (68%) and Rural County residents (59%). Three-quarters (72%) of respondents who would not take the vaccine also believe the decision whether students wear masks should rest with parents.”

As it turns out, Democratic President Joe Biden has taken an even bigger job approval hit than Ducey when it comes to handling the pandemic — with a -4% net negative rating. Six months ago, Biden enjoyed a net 32% approval rating — with the promise of a mass vaccination program making headlines and the Delta surge still in the future.

Only mask mandates won the support of a majority of those polled. Closing public schools, business closure orders, vaccine mandates, stay-at home orders and enforced social distancing all got far less support — ranging from 24% for another stay-at-home order to 45% for enforced social distancing.

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

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