New cases of COVID-19 continue to surge across Arizona, throwing into harsh light the unexpectedly slow rollout of a new, high-tech vaccine.

New cases of COVID-19 have jumped 89% in Payson, 200% in Pine and 18% in the Tonto Basin in the past two weeks, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Nationally, cases in the past week have risen just 2%, compared to 41% in Arizona.

However, at midweek the state had distributed and administered only a third of the 314,750 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines it has received. Two-thirds of the doses remain in storage, due to the slow rollout of vaccination clinics at the county level.

This week, the state was slated to get another 140,000 doses, including 60,000 doses intended to be the second shot for frontline healthcare workers and nursing home workers – who are in the top priority group. This would mean the state has received 255,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech doses and 201,000 Moderna doses. That’s enough to vaccinate 228,000 people – or 3% of the state’s population with the full, two-dose regime.

The state has 27,000 nursing home residents and staff, 70,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors. The state also has 49,000 teachers.

The rollout has gone so slowly nationally that the federal Centers for Disease Control has urged states to move quickly through the priority groups to make sure as many people get shots as quickly as possible. County officials say that fewer front-line healthcare workers have lined up for their shots than expected.

However, most counties this week were not letting people make appointments unless they were in the highest priority groups, starting with nursing home residents and front-line medical workers.

Fortunately, Gila County at midweek was actually among the most advanced when it came to administering shots – moving quickly from the 1A priority group to the 1B group, which includes adults older than 75 and other groups of essential, front-line workers – like police officers, paramedics and teachers.

The slow rollout in part reflects the difficulty of handling the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. They both have to remain super-chilled in special freezers. Once you open a vial, you have to use all 10 doses within the hour — which means you can’t really administer it in a doctor’s office without wasting doses — even if the doctor had a super-chilled freezer.

Moreover, the federal government lagged in providing the $10 billion states requested to set up an efficient mass-vaccination system. Congress did finally include $8 billion for vaccinations in the just-passed, second stimulus bill. But by then, the vaccination campaigns were already underway.

Finally, county health workers say that fewer health care and nursing home workers have made appointments than they expected – slowing the rollout further.

Large-scale studies have shown that both of the currently approved vaccines are 95% effective, with minimal side effects. The most common reported side effects are sore arms, headaches and flu-like symptoms for a day or two.

Meanwhile, the virus continues with its rampage throughout the state, making Arizona this week the national hot spot.

On Jan 5, the state health department reported 10,000 cases, 290 deaths and 4,789 hospitalizations. In the past week, the state has reported almost 9,000 new cases each day. Hospitals are now nearing capacity, with a 17 % increase in hospitalizations in the past week.

The state’s zip code reporting system shows that cases are spreading rapidly in most areas of Gila County. Those zip code numbers don’t include Indian reservations, which have a separate reporting system.

The highest rates of spread in the county figures are mostly smaller communities, where a handful of new cases can have a big impact.

Some other areas have seen declines in new cases – including Young and Roosevelt.

The infection rate per 100,000 population throughout Gila County remains relatively high, including 110 per 100,000 in Payson, 90 per 100,000 in Pine, 140 per 100,000 in Globe and 120 per 100,000 in San Carlos.

The lowest infection rate in the county was 20 per 100,000 in Young.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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