In the war against COVID-19, Gila County has seized the beachhead by vaccinating a higher percentage of residents than most of the country. Now, the county faces the long slog inland — against the forces of vaccine hesitancy and the sheer number of shots needed.

Although 67% of the 65-and-older crowd has stepped up to offer arms for vaccines, the 20- to 44-year-olds have lagged.

“That bracket should be huge,” said Josh Beck, Gila County Health and Emergency Management’s lead for the county’s response to the pandemic.

But he acknowledges, “The younger you are, the less you care about taking the vaccine,” given the higher risk of death and serious illness among the elderly.

According to nationwide polls, 30% of U.S. citizens say they will not take a vaccine. Unless at least half of those people eventually decide to get a shot, the virus will persist — and continue to mutate, say health officials.

Beck admits researchers do not have enough data to predict how this virus will evolve, but new variants that have emerged spread easier and are more deadly.

“It is going to have to become more communicable to survive (and) find another way to spread efficiently,” said Beck.

Studies suggest new variants from Brazil, South Africa, California, England and elsewhere spread more easily. Some of them also cause more serious disease and may make currently approved vaccines less effective. As a result, a higher percentage of the population needs to get vaccinated to reach the safety of “herd immunity.”

Doctors say that until 90% of the world’s population has been vaccinated or recovered from an infection, the virus will continue to circulate — similar to the flu, but far more lethal, said Beck and his boss, Michael O’Driscoll, director of the Gila County Health and Emergency Management Department.

Beck said Europe’s slow vaccine rollout has contributed to a fresh rise in cases. Italy has gone back to implementing lockdowns.

“Are we (the U.S.) looking at another wave in June or July like last year?” said Beck.

Fortunately, new research suggests people who have gotten a shot are far less likely to get infected at all — or to spread disease to others. Previously, clinical trials just showed that the approved vaccines reduce the risk of symptoms or serious illness by 95%. The new research shows the shots also reduce the odds someone will get infected without showing symptoms by 80% or 90%. Moreover, people who have recovered from an infection are less likely to get reinfected if they get a shot — even if it’s just one shot of the two-shot vaccines.

In both northern and southern Gila County, clinics and hospitals continue to administer vaccines.

The choice has expanded with the first shipment of Johnson & Johnson vaccine arriving in early March. But production has delayed future Johnson & Johnson vaccines until later in the month.

So far, only the health department has offered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in a series of smaller clinics in outlying areas such as Pine and Miami. Once production ramps up, the county will consider how best to distribute this one and done vaccine.

In the meantime, most providers in the county provide the Moderna vaccine.

The number of vaccines provided to the county remains high, but Beck cautions: if the vaccine rate slows too much, the allocation will be reduced.

Here in Payson, the county has seen changes to the list of providers.

The Banner Health clinic on Main Street has phased out of providing vaccines.

“They are going to finish off their second doses” before shutting down their COVID vaccine services, said O’Driscoll.

At the same time, the Safeway pharmacy has stepped up. O’Driscoll and Beck say that pharmacy receives its vaccines directly from the federal government, not the county.

“How that program works, they sign up ... then when the CDC allocates the vaccines, they get theirs,” said O’Driscoll.

Those interested in a vaccine from Safeway need to schedule an appointment online at www.safeway.com.

Other providers in Payson continue to work through the county health department, including the Genoa Pharmacy in the Southwest Behavioral building off McLane, Ponderosa Family Care on Main Street and Dr. Ali Askari on North Beeline Highway.

While the immediate hurdle for Beck and O’Driscoll is to overcome vaccine hesitancy, they have looked to the future.

“This is not going to go away on our radar,” said O’Driscoll.

The health department recently received the go-ahead from the county supervisors to rent space in April at 600 N. Beeline Hwy.

This office will primarily provide antibody tests to start the process of gathering information on a virus scientists still don’t fully understand.

These tests will help officials understand how long vaccines and illness provide protection. If enough people volunteer for a pin-prick blood test, the county can get at the still perplexing longer-term effects of the virus, as well as the reinfection rate. Many patients continue to show a host of odd symptoms even months after an infection — when they no longer test positive for an active infection.

In a bright piece of news, some tantalizing new evidence suggests a shot can reduce the symptoms of so-called “long Covid.”

If COVID turns into the flu, it will remain in the population and spring up every year. That seems likely now, since the U.S. is far ahead of the rest of the world in vaccinating its population. In Africa and South America, vaccine programs won’t get underway until late this year — or even next year.

If that’s the case, then drug companies can alter the vaccines every year to target the new dominant strain and ongoing protection might require an annual booster shot. Health officials must then just hope the virus doesn’t morph into something even more lethal.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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