After missing a week, Gila County’s moving into vaccinating the general public against COVID sooner than any other county in the state.

The storm in the east blocked delivery of vaccines last week, but the county and its health care partners are mounting an ambitious effort to vaccinate the general public this weekend with 2,000 vaccines available.

You still need to make a reservation to receive a shot, but the clinic’s not limited to high-risk groups.

Fortunately, the number of new cases has dropped after setting records in January. The surge probably reflected the mixing of families and group events during the holidays.

Nationally, the number of new cases has dropped by 40% in the past two weeks and the number of deaths by 28%.

Gila County’s doing even better — with a 52% drop in new cases.

Nonetheless, county residents still face an “exceptionally high” risk of infection.

Arizona has gained a lot of ground after a slow vaccine roll-out, especially in rural areas. National tracking databases as of Wednesday indicated that 15.2% of Arizona residents have received a first dose and 5.4% have received a second dose — a total of 21% with at least partial protection. That’s in the top 20% of states nationally.

Neighboring New Mexico is doing better — with 30% having had at least one shot. Alaska is doing the best — with 33% having gotten a shot. However, Arizona’s doing better than California, where only 19% have gotten a shot as of earlier this week.

Manufacturers continue to boost their production and the federal government’s latest stimulus package includes billions in additional funding for vaccinations. The county may get a fresh infusion of money for vaccinations and testing in the next several weeks.

The current pace of vaccinations nationally won’t reach “herd immunity” levels of 80% or 90% until late in the summer or even early in the fall. However, if the vaccination rate continues to improve at the current rate — the nation could achieve substantial protection by early in the summer.

This week, the federal government announced that the coronavirus vaccines shipped to the states would increase by 1 million doses weekly to 14.5 million. Weekly shipments have doubled since Jan. 20. The vaccine distribution system also got a boost this week with the announcement that the Pfizer vaccine doesn’t have to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures after all, which could expand the number of sites relying on the vaccine.

However, continued progress depends on a host of factors, including whether the 25% of Arizona residents who say they don’t plan on getting vaccinated change their minds.

The clinical trials have demonstrated that the leading vaccines approved for use in the U.S. offer about 95% protection from developing the disease. Those trials didn’t demonstrate whether someone who’s vaccinated could still carry the virus and pass it along to other people. That’s why reaching that herd immunity level of 80% or 90% remains critical to resuming some version of normal life. So far in Gila County, roughly 15% of the population has recovered from an infection and 21% have gotten vaccinated — which means more than a third of the population is protected from developing serious symptoms. So we still have a long way to go before we no longer need to rely on widespread mask wearing and limiting the kinds of group gatherings associated with “super spreader” events.

The other big unknown remains the rapid spread of new strains of the virus that cause COVID-19. Those new strains are 30% to 70% easier to spread. Several of those strains may also cause more serious disease, including several already circulating in Arizona. That includes two strains first identified in California. Preliminary studies suggest those two new California strains both spread more easily and make current vaccines less effective. Those strains may on average double the viral load in those it infects.

The emergence of the new strains remains a big unknown because the U.S. currently doesn’t have a robust system for using genetic analysis of random samples to track the spread of the new variants. Researchers say the rise of the new strains only underscores the importance of reaching “herd immunity” as quickly as possible through widespread vaccinations.

Vaccine manufacturers say they’re already working on booster shots that would confer additional protection against the new strains.

Still, the rapid decline in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths has provided welcome relief in Arizona.

Statewide in the past two weeks, cases have declined 47%, deaths have dropped 34% and hospitalizations by 44%. Overall, the state has returned to the infection rates during the first peak back in July — with about 1,700 new cases daily. Statewide, the infection rate for the past week has declined to 22 new cases per 100,000 population.

That compares to 24 cases per 100,000 in Gila County. For the past two weeks, the county has averaged about 13 new cases each day.

In the past two weeks, Gila County has also seen big declines in new cases, but remains at “extremely high risk.” Over the past two weeks, new cases have dropped by 52% and hospitalizations by 47%. About 10% of the tests have come back positive, suggesting a continued, significant under-count in the number of cases.

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(2) comments

Mike White

I fear that the constant stream of negative news about the spread of Covid is leading to actions that may be worse than the disease itself. For example, requiring a total social and economic lockdown (with its terrible impact) and having to wear multiple masks that have been shown not to work. Part of the negative coverage includes a way-overstated death rate that has been shown to be due to co-morbidity factors for the most part, and the reporting of new strains that will inevitably lead us to not being allowed to travel or attend large public events without some type of proof of having had the mandatory annual Covid shots. And I don't think we will ever get to the point where over 80% of the population take the vaccines, given the brand-new mRNA technology with unknown long-term side effects. And thrown in all the public skepticism that has arisen from the constantly changing edicts from Dr. Fauci.

Phil Mason

I have come to an interesting hypothesis on the reason Peter's education articles are so biased in favor of the government school industry. Let me illustrate: He writes: "15.2% of Arizona residents have received a first dose and 5.4% have received a second dose — a total of 21%." Seems innocuous until you look closely. If only 15.2% of the population have received a first dose, and of those one-third have received a second dose, the total number of residents who have been vaccinated is - - 15.2%. Most one shot and some two shots.

It is either the New Math or the writer's prohibitive pattern of simply writing whatever the puppeteers desire. It makes for lots of verbiage, but not much in the way of credibility.

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