Arizona’s COVID vaccination program is finally ramping up, but so has criticism of the state’s slow start.

The state’s vaccination program has so far reached more than 1 million people, even as new cases and hospitalizations decline.

Navajo County remains at “extremely high risk,” but in the last two weeks the number of new cases has declined by 36% as a daily average and hospitalizations have declined by 17%. Apache County also remains at “extremely high risk,” despite a 49% decline in new cases and an 18% decline in hospitalizations.

Nonetheless, Rep. Tom O’Halleran fired off a stern letter to Gov. Doug Ducey this week demanding information on how the state can get more shots into more arms more quickly.

“I was extremely disappointed that you were unable to meet with our Congressional delegation when you were in Washington D.C. for the Presidential Inauguration, despite making time to meet with legislators from other states,” said O’Halleran.

O’Halleran noted that the state has now administered 78% of the doses it has received, but asked the governor to answer three questions:

1. What resources would be necessary to ensure that the state can provide three weeks of vaccine allocations to counties and local health providers?

2. How is the state of Arizona tracking the spread of new, potentially more contagious and deadly variants of COVID-19?

3. How is the state of Arizona planning on ensuring individuals in rural and underserved areas have access to vaccines? Are additional federal resources, like funding for mobile vaccination centers, being considered?

O’Halleran’s letter noted that the state did not answer a Dec. 17 letter asking for details on the state’s vaccination plan or reply to letters from the congressional delegation on Nov. 24 and Jan. 17.

“I hope my letter conveys to the governor that we must consider the needs of rural Arizona families who must often travel hours to receive basic medical care, including COVID-19 vaccines,” said O’Halleran. “The need for constant communications on this matter cannot be overstated.”

The governor’s office did not return a request for comment prior to press time.

However, the governor’s office issued a release celebrating administration of the millionth dose of the COVID-19 vaccines, which in clinical trials proved 95% effective in preventing illness from the then-dominant strain of the virus. Most Arizona counties are still limiting shots to the highest priority groups, including front-line health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, people older than 75 and other frontline workers like teachers. Some counties have opened reservations to people older than 65 and other adults with high-risk conditions. As of early this week, only Gila County had started taking reservations for vaccination clinics from the general population.

The governor’s office called the millionth dose “a major milestone.”

The release added, ”but there’s more work to be done. Arizonans are eager to get the vaccine, and we’re committed to distributing it safely and efficiently. We will continue to work with our private and public partners and with the federal government to secure the doses we need to protect Arizona.”

Gila County’s doing much better than many other counties throughout the state, according to tracking numbers. The county has nearly finished the high-risk groups and next weekend is taking reservations for a vaccination clinic for the general population.

Perhaps 20% of the population has gotten a shot so far and another 12% so far recovered from an infection. The county has suffered 6,400 infections and 200 deaths.

The mass vaccination program suffered a temporary setback this week when the severe winter storm gripping much of the country slowed federal shipments of doses to the states. Arizona started distributing doses on Dec. 14, but initially only to Maricopa and Pima counties. Distribution to rural counties has lagged, with such big changes in the doses received from week to week that counties have struggled to make appointments at vaccination clinics, since the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines can spoil an hour after the 5-10 shot vials are opened.

However, Maricopa and Pima counties have been able to operate 24-hour mass vaccination clinics at places like football stadiums. This has prompted some people from rural areas to journey to the Valley in an effort to get their shots.

A national database maintained by the federal Centers for Disease Control indicates that as of Feb. 17, Arizona had moved from the bottom to near the top when it comes to the percentage of the population vaccinated.

The database showed that 12.3% of Arizona residents have gotten the first shot and 3.7% the second shot — a total of about 16%. That’s about the same as California, but worse than New Mexico — where 21% have gotten one or both doses. However, even states that are lagging — like Utah — have vaccinated about 14% of the population with at least one dose.

Gila County’s so far beating the statewide average — putting it on a par with some of the most highly vaccinated states in the country.

The nation’s now administering about 1.6 million shots per day, compared to more like 1 million shots a day in January.

The rapid spread of new, more infectious, perhaps more dangerous COVID strains has added urgency to the vaccination efforts. Studies suggest that the new strains are not only 30 to 70% faster spreading but 20 to 40% more likely to cause serious illness — depending on the strain. Several of the new strains are already circulating in Arizona. So far, the current vaccines appear effective in stopping the new strains as well — although in some cases they may offer 60-70% protection instead of 95%. The manufacturers of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are working on booster shots or tweaking the existing formula to make their shots more effective against the new strains.

Epidemiologists estimate that the nation won’t reach “herd immunity” until 70 to 90% of the population has either gotten vaccinated or recovered from an infection.

In Arizona, 16% are now vaccinated and another 11% have recovered from an infection — which means roughly 27% are now largely protected from infection. That’s still less than half-way to herd immunity — when the virus will largely die out in the population.

Until then, experts say widespread mask-wearing, maintaining social distancing, limiting travel and avoiding crowded situations that create ‘super spreader’ events remain the best way to slow the virus while vaccinations continue. Doctors say they still must work on convincing everyone to get vaccinated, since polls show perhaps 25% of adults say they probably won’t get the shot once it’s available.

Still, new cases have plummeted in the past two weeks. Arizona for several weeks in January had the highest infection rate in the country. Now it has dropped to 7th place. The state’s daily average infection rate has dropped 37% in the past two weeks. Deaths have dropped 49% and hospitalizations by 35%. So far, the state has suffered 891,000 infections and 15,000 deaths. Despite the steep decline, the state’s still reporting about 1,200 new cases daily.

Minority communities have been especially hard hit. Native Americans make up about 4% of the state population — but 8% of those who have died.

Overall, people older than 65 account for 73% of the deaths in Arizona.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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(1) comment

Dave Golembewski

Are their any cases of the regular flue reported or are they all reported as Covid ??

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