The number of people lining up for COVID shots has started to dwindle, which means Gila County health officials have a whole new challenge, especially now that Gov. Doug Ducey has lifted mask mandates and other social distancing restrictions.
In the past two weeks, the average number of new daily cases has risen 26%, although hospitalizations have continued to decline.
The county’s considered at “high risk,” which health officials say underscores the need for continued mask wearing in public and other ongoing precautions. It also shows the need to convince people to get vaccinated to reach the safety of “herd immunity” as soon as possible.
County health officials say they’re also worried about the possibility of reinfections among people who have already recovered from the virus. Research shows that if people who have already had COVID get the vaccine, it will reduce the chance of a reinfection.
All of that adds up to an ongoing challenge for the vaccine effort.
“I have talked to plenty of 20- to 45-year-olds,” said Josh Beck, head of Gila County’s response to the pandemic. “There seems to be a lot of people who had COVID and it wasn’t bad, so they think it’s not that threatening of a virus.”
Moreover, after weeks of decline — new cases in Gila County have ticked upward again.
Add to that, officials in Europe and now New Jersey have seen an uptick in cases among people who had the virus three or four months ago and now have become reinfected.
“It is generally the people who didn’t have a bad case,” said Beck, to explain why the virus would infect them a second time.
Doctors think perhaps they had such a low viral load the first time the immune system didn’t develop a long-lasting response. So when they’re exposed to the virus again, the response of the immune system lacks the firepower to knock it back, said Beck.
With viruses like chickenpox, people gain lasting immunity after a first infection. That means you can combine the people who have recovered with the people who’ve gotten vaccinated in getting to “herd immunity” — with so many people protected that fresh cases can’t readily spread.
But with COVID, “you need herd immunity by vaccine and not herd immunity by getting sick,” said Beck.
Roughly 15% of the county population have tested positive for the virus and recovered. But experts fear that might not provide as much help in finally containing the virus as they hoped — making the vaccine even more important for COVID than for many other viruses.
The vaccine, especially the two doses, provides you the blueprint to first teach the body to fight the virus — and then to produce memory T-cells to ensure the immune system will respond quickly the next time it encounters the virus, said Beck.
Without that one-two punch, “you might see, eventually, how many times these people can get infected in a year. If you lose your sense of smell or taste two or three times a year, that might be uncomfortable,” said Beck.
Fortunately, the approved vaccines have proved highly effective in preventing an infection — with minimal side effects.
Michael O’Driscoll, director of Gila County’s Health and Emergency Services Department, said only mild side effects from the vaccine have been reported — a sore arm, low grade fever, muscle fatigue, all “flu-like symptoms.”
But getting that first shot in northern Gila County frustrates some.
Reports that Safeway is booked out for two months or that the Ponderosa Family Care voicemail is full make setting that first appointment a challenge.
O’Driscoll and Beck said Dr. Ali Askari’s practice provides “close to 500” doses a week.
“He basically committed his staff and additional qualified people to administer the vaccine,” said O’Driscoll.
But it’s Askari’s office manager that makes it all work.
“She is giving that customer service, hands on, ‘Here’s my number, I’ll get them registered’ attitude,” said Beck. “We were both amazed.”
The Genoa Pharmacy is also taking appointments.
Gila County has now opened appointments to anyone over 18, months ahead of the schedule set by the federal government.
But the two Gila County health officials know they have a campaign ahead to convince those who haven’t had the vaccine to get it. Many people are wary of vaccines anyway — but misinformation spread on the internet has posed an additional challenge.
“If we came to their house, they would do it,” said Beck, but the health department does not have those resources.
The federal government has provided health departments with a budget to get the message out about vaccines. O’Driscoll is toying with the idea of using billboards and radio spots to make a push into the community.
“If we get herd immunity, we eradicate it,” said Beck.