The flood of new COVID-19 cases in Navajo County has slowed to a trickle and health officials have opened up vaccination appointments for anyone older than 55, Health Director Janelle Linn told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

“We’ve had just eight new cases in the past 24 hours, which is very encouraging and new to us — so we’re happy to see that,” said Linn.

“It’s just awesome we’re seeing COVID-19 cases coming down,” said Supervisor Daryl Seymore.

Nonetheless, the county has recorded 15,765 confirmed cases, including 577 cases among students and school staff. Countywide, the death toll has hit 505, said Linn.

In the past week, Navajo County has reported an infection rate of 15 per 100,000 — just below the state average of 18 per 100,000. Apache County has twice the infection rate — 40 per 100,000, which remains among the highest rates in the state.

The hundreds of cases reported on campuses in the Navajo County has raised concerns by teachers and parents. The governor last week ordered schools to resume in-person classes next week, despite the continued reports of new cases at schools.

However, Navajo County has now offered vaccinations to any teachers who want them. As a result, teachers who have been vaccinated won’t have to quarantine if exposed to the virus by a student or fellow staff member.

That dramatically decreases the problem of finding substitute teachers to cover for teachers in quarantine.

Children appear much less likely to develop serious symptoms and apparently don’t pass along the virus as easily as adults.

Both Navajo and Apache counties remain at “very high risk” on national, COVID-tracking databases, despite the steady decline in new cases since the peak in mid-January.

In Navajo County, new cases have dropped 47% and hospitalizations by 58% in the past two weeks. Still, the county has reported 27 deaths in that time, with 6% of tests coming back positive.

In Apache County, new cases have dropped just 9% and hospitalizations have dropped 64% — with a total of 29 deaths in the past two weeks.

Linn urged residents to continue to wear masks in public or indoor settings where they can’t keep 6 feet apart.

She noted that the governor’s order lifting capacity limits on business like gyms and bars still leaves in place a requirement that businesses observe social distance and mask-wearing requirements to protect customers and staff.

Some 82% of the hospital beds in the region are still full — but only about 11% due to COVID. “That’s still a little concerning,” said Linn, providing another reason to urge people to continue to wear masks in public.

Still, the briefing offered mostly good news for a county that has at times had the highest infection and death rates in the country.

The best news centers on the continued progress of the mass vaccination program, including receipt of the first doses of a third, highly effective vaccine — this one made by Janssen and Johnson and Johnson.

Navajo County has been receiving between 2,000 and 2,500 vaccine doses a week from the state. Linn said 14% of the county’s population has now been fully vaccinated, compared to just 9.2 % of residents statewide.

The state continues to vaccinate 1-2% of the population each week, as the national rollout gains speed. One national vaccine tracking data base showed that Arizona early this week had given a first shot to 20% of the population and fully vaccinated 10% — one of the better performances in the country.

Alaska’s doing the best, with 25% having received one dose and 16% fully vaccinated.

Nationally, about 2.2 million people are getting their shot each day, compared to about 1 million a day on Jan. 21.

Many residents also now enjoy partial immunity after receiving their first shot or having recovered from an infection.

Roughly 14% of residents have recovered from an infection and roughly 20% have received at least one dose of the vaccine. As a result, roughly 35% of the population now has at least partial protection against an infection, which could help account for the dramatic decline in new cases since the peak in January.

Linn offered the board information on both the confusing change in state directives about business operations and the new, Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

She said the governor’s executive order lifting capacity limits on restaurants, gyms, theaters and other businesses that provide a fertile ground for the spread of the virus if they become over crowded.

Although the order lifted the previous capacity limits, business must still ensure that customers can maintain social distancing.

“To maintain that six-foot distance, you really can’t go up much in occupancy. It doesn’t mean everything is lifted and you can just go back to normal,” said Linn. “Where this may have more of an impact involves things like sporting events.”

She noted that cities, counties and towns can still issue mask mandates for public spaces, even though the state has not issued such a mandate.

However, a bill moving through the legislature currently would give businesses the authority to ignore local mask mandates.

She said the county has also been bombarded with questions about the new, one-shot, Johnson and Johnson vaccine, as people try to understand the efficacy data produced by the clinical trials.

She noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control has advised that the Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines all provide equivalent protection and people should grab the chance to get vaccinated with whichever one of the three becomes available first.

“There’s been some confusion on efficacy rates. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are 90 to 94 % and the Janssen has 66 to 74% — so that has caused confusion.

“What we want to stress is that the trials were done differently, the groups were different, the parts of the world were different. So you really can’t directly compare them.”

The key point is that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine proved 94% effective in avoiding hospitalization and 100% effective in avoiding death. It might prove a little less effective than the other two in preventing mild infections.

However, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine also has some advantages. It requires a single dose, cutting in half the logistics of the mass vaccination campaign.

It might also have fewer side effects and maybe even work better against some of the new, more infectious variants of the virus. But that’s still not been confirmed in large-scale trials.

Linn said the CDC has also updated its advice on when people who have been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks can resume something approaching normal life.

“Basically, they’re letting us know that fully vaccinated people can be a little less cautious about gathering indoors. If a large portion of the people in the room are fully vaccinated, you still want to socially distance — but not necessarily wear your mask.

“That’s very helpful for family gatherings. You can also maybe chat with your neighbor next door without a mask if you’re keeping social distance.”

She noted that people who have been fully vaccinated no longer have to quarantine if they have close contact with an infected person.

On the other hand, “some of the things have not changed. When we’re in a large public gathering, we should still be wearing our mask. Approach any large gathering of unvaccinated individuals with caution.”

Public health officials are still seeking conclusive answers to many questions about the virus and the vaccines.

For instance, doctors don’t know whether someone who’s vaccinated and protected from developing symptoms can’t still have an undetected infection they can pass along to others.

Doctors also don’t know whether the vaccine will provide lasting protection. People might need a booster shot in six months or a year, especially given the spread of the new, more infections and potentially more dangerous strains of the COVID-19 virus.

“There are so many unknowns about COVID that we’re monitoring all the time. We all want to know when we can go back to our day-to-day routine, back to normal,” she said.

Just not quite yet.

So Linn and the CDC are urging people to continue practicing social distancing and wear masks in public until 70% or 80% of the population has either gotten a shot or recovered from an infection — which should happen sometime this summer.

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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