Three steps forward.

Two steps back.

And so goes the pandemic.

Pfizer this week announced data it has submitted to the federal Food and Drug Administration shows that its COVID vaccine provokes strong immune response among children ages 5-11 with only fleeting side effects. This could lead to the approval of the vaccine for younger children by the end of October.

On the other hand, a new poll out this week shows that despite the surge in new cases and deaths due to the Delta variant — some 20% of Arizona residents say they have no intention of getting the vaccine.

The news comes amid signs that the latest surge in cases in Arizona has at least plateaued — although Gila County still has one of the highest rates of new infections in the state.

As of Tuesday, Payson schools reported a cumulative total of 128 student cases, 18 cases among faculty and staff and 872 close contacts — although that number double counts some students and staff who came into contact with more than one positive case.

The rise in new cases in the past two weeks has been greatest at the high school, which now has 42 students and three staff cases. The middle school continues to cope with a lot of cases — 62 students and five staff.

Some businesses in Payson that rely heavily on high school students as workers have even changed their hours of operation, because so many students are now quarantining.

Meanwhile, Julia Randall Elementary School reports just 15 students and four staff cases, while Payson Elementary School has reported nine students and two faculty cases. This accords with national studies showing high school and middle school campuses are far more likely to generate clusters — mostly because elementary school students remain in a single classroom all day rather than mingling with students from six different classes.

The cluster of cases in the schools echoes the spread of the virus in the community. Payson remains a county hot spot, with 85 cases reported the week of Sept. 11-20, plus four in Pine, three in Star Valley and four in Tonto Basin. Some 53 of the 188 cases reported countywide are among those younger than 20 — which probably reflects the higher vaccination rates among older people in the county. Less than 10% of those younger than 20 have received even a single shot, compared to 71% of those older than 65. Gila County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, with only 33% of those 20 to 35 and 40% of those 35-44 having received even one shot. This means kids can easily pick up the virus in school and spread it to their unvaccinated parents.

Gila County in the past two weeks has had an infection rate of 52 per 100,000, compared to a statewide average of 35 per 100,000.

Nonetheless, the Delta driven surge has slowed — with new infections declining by 17% statewide and by 28% in Gila County. The overwhelming majority of the new infections have been among the unvaccinated and almost all of the deaths and serious illness.

The latest news on the safety and efficiency of the vaccine among children offers fresh hope of getting back to normal in schools, where students suffered months of learning loss due to distance learning and school closures. Children account for about one in five new infections nationally, a far higher percentage than in earlier surges. Some 30,000 children were hospitalized with COVID in August nationally and doctors fear children in the latest surge may also suffer from the rare, but potentially fatal, multi-system inflammatory syndrome, months after recovering from the initial infection.

The Pfizer data — not yet published or peer-reviewed — compared the impact of the shots on 2,268 children ages 5 to 11 to the effects of a placebo shot on a similar number of children. Not enough children got infected to calculate the ability of the shot to prevent an infection. However, the children who got the shot generated a strong immune response — which means they would probably get the same protection as adults — in whom the vaccine prevents 95% of infections. The children in the trial suffered only mild and fleeting side effects — including fever, flu-like symptoms, fatigue and sore muscles at the site of the injection.

The younger children had about the same reaction to the shot as teens 12 to 18 years old, who have also been approved for the shot. It will take months of additional data-gathering before the authorization for children goes from “emergency use” to regular use. At that point, schools could mandate the shots, just as they do for other childhood vaccines.

The children received about a third of the dose given to adults, due to their smaller body mass.

However, the positive results of the vaccine in children in Arizona were partially overshadowed by news that a solid 20% of Arizona adults say they don’t plan on getting the shot, despite the fresh surge in cases. Republicans were far more likely to refuse the shot than either Democrats or independents, according to the results of the OH Predictive Insights poll. Fortunately, 70% have either already gotten the shot or say they’re willing. When combined with the number of people who have recovered from an infection, vaccinating 70% of the population would likely enable the state to reach the protection of herd immunity – when means fresh cases would sputter and die out rather than causing another surge.

The poll of 1,000 Arizona residents was conducted between Sept. 7 and Sept. 20 and has a margin of error of about 3% either way.

About 46% of resident say they’re very or moderately concerned about the pandemic and about 35% say they’re slightly or not at all concerned. Unfortunately, the people least concerned are also the most likely to refuse the shot, even though almost all of the hospitalizations and deaths are now among the unvaccinated.

Only about 52% of those polled think the pandemic will get better in the next 30 days, a big increase in the levels of pessimism in the past six months.

Among the unvaccinated, 60% said the delta variant surge has not affected their willingness to get the shot. However, 22% said they’re more likely to get the shot now. Weirdly – 18% said the delta variant surge makes them even less likely to get the shot.

Interestingly, 48% of Arizona residents approve of Gov. Doug Ducey’s handling of the pandemic – even though half opposed the governor’s ban on mask mandates in schools and 57% oppose his threat to withhold money from schools that impose a mask mandate.

“Most respondents, especially those without children, believe that schools should have the power to decide whether students wear masks,” concluded the poll. “The strongest belief that schools should make decisions regarding mask mandates is found among Democrats (80%), Hispanic adults (68%), postgraduates (68%), and Pima County residents (67%). The opinion that parents should make decisions regarding mask mandates is likeliest to be found among Republicans (68%) and rural county residents (59%). Three-quarters (72%) of respondents who would not take the vaccine also believe the decision whether students wear masks should rest with parents.”

As it turns out, Democratic President Joe Biden has taken an even bigger job approval hit than Ducey when it comes to handling the pandemic — with a -4% net negative rating. Six months ago, Biden enjoyed a net 32% approval rating — with the promise of a mass vaccination program making headlines and the Delta surge still in the future.

Only mask mandates won the support of a majority of those polls. Closing public schools, business closure orders, vaccine mandates and enforced social distancing all got far less support — ranging from 24% for another stay-at-home order to 45% for enforced social distancing.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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