PHOENIX — The state’s top health official said Friday that statements by elected lawmakers doubting the need for and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine are hampering efforts to get more Arizonans inoculated.
Dr. Cara Christ said there has been a sharp drop-off in the number of people in the state seeking out any of the three approved vaccines.
Administration peaked in March with more than 76,000 a day.
By Thursday the figure had dropped below 9,000. And that’s even with the Pfizer vaccine now being approved and available for those age 12 and up.
Christ said that declining pattern is in both the state-run administration sites as well as vaccines administered by others, including pharmacies and private health-care providers.
All this comes as Christ said she is trying to get enough Arizonans vaccinated to reach “herd immunity,’’ the point at which the threat of spread becomes minimal. And she said that while the number of cases and deaths is declining, Arizona is not there yet, with a steady report of about 500 cases a day.
Christ said the state is boosting its education programs to make people aware of the need for the vaccine and that it is both safe and effective.
But comments during and after a legislative hearing this past week show not everyone believes that.
Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said the vaccines have not been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. And questioned both the need for the vaccine and the alarm that he said has “shut down the world economy.’’
“We don’t do it for Hep C, we don’t do it for anything,’’ he asked. “Why should we do it now when this virus has a 99.8% survival rate and the average for death is like 72?”
Roberts represents Legislative District 11, which includes Maricopa, Arizona City, Picacho, Oracle and parts of Casa Grande and Eloy.
Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, was even more blunt in his assessment of the vaccine.
“(I) have been told it kills lab animals, hasn’t been truly fully safe, still in the experimental stages,’’ he said. “We’re all being used as guinea pigs.”
“I would say that, unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccine,’’ Christ said when asked specifically about Borrelli’s comments. And she said that while the vaccines are being used under an “emergency use authorization’’ versus full FDA approval, that does not make them any less safe.
“These vaccines have been through the exact same clinical trials as all of the other vaccines,’’ Christ said. The EUA process, she said, simply cuts down on the “bureaucratic requirements.’’
Arizona isn’t the only state where interest is waning in getting vaccinated.
Some states are getting fairly creative.
In Maryland, for example, Gov. Larry Hogan is launching a special lottery open only to those who have been vaccinated. One person a day will get $40,000 from May 25 through July 3; a grant prize of $400,000 will be awarded July 4.
Christ said Arizona isn’t going quite that far. But she said there is at least one incentive program in the works where the state will partner with the Arizona Diamondbacks where people can come to Chase Field to get vaccinated. She said there will be special events for children.
“And those who get vaccinated may get a free ticket to a future game of their choice,’’ Christ said.
There also has been a shift in how vaccines are being made available.
The initial strategy was those state-run sites, where people were willing to go to get vaccinated, even if it meant showing up for an available slot at 3 a.m.
“We do know, now, we have to make it more convenient,’’ Christ said. That has meant more community-based deliver sites.
For example, Christ said there was a neighborhood vaccination clinic at the Greenfield School in the Roosevelt Elementary School District in Phoenix.
“We vaccinated almost 700 people just in a couple of hours at that site, which is more than some of or state PODs (point of delivery sites) had done that same day,’’ she said.
But none of that will help if people either are convinced they don’t need the vaccine or believe it actually is dangerous. Christ said her job now is to reach the non-believers.
“We’ve administered over 5 million doses here in Arizona alone,’’ she said, a figure that includes both first and second doses of vaccines that require more than one. “The vaccine is safe.’’
And Christ said there are “real-world studies’’ that show the vaccine is very effective in preventing hospitalization and death.
“And so we would encourage anybody who thinks the vaccines aren’t safe to look at our web site at ‘azhealth.gov’, to talk to their health care provider,’’ she said. Christ said there also is information available on web sites run by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and the National Institutes of Health.
“We are aware that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the COVID-19 vaccine,’’ she said.
Overall, the state reports that nearly 3.2 million Arizonans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, or about 44% of the total population. And close to 2.7 million Arizonans are fully inoculated.
But the data also show a great disparity based on age.
It would appear that the group most interested in getting vaccinated are Arizona’s seniors. Christ said more than 83% have gotten inoculated.
But there’s a sharp fall-off below that, suggesting that the younger people are the less they believe they need the protection.
Among the 55 to 64 age group, the vaccination rate is 64.3%. It drops to 51.4% for those 45-54, and just 45.5% for those on the 35-44-year-old age group
And just 667,000 out of those who are between 15 and 34 have rolled up their sleeves, representing just slightly more than a third of that Arizona population.
Arizona only started vaccinating those 12 through 15 in the past week. State officials put the tally of those who are inoculated at 24,529, or about 6.4% of that age group.
All that relates to the fact that, even now, the number of new cases per day has remained about the same for the past two months.
“We just have to get as much of the community as possible vaccinated,’’ Christ said.
“That’s really what’s going to bring that decline,’’ she said. “It’s really working on getting into those communities, talking about the vaccine and increasing vaccination rates so that we can reach that herd immunity.’’
YUMA — Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of one of the worst illegal immigration tragedies to date, when 14 migrants succumbed to the elements after getting lost in the unforgiving desert southeast of Yuma.
That day started out as a typical one for David Phagan, who was a Border Patrol agent at the Wellton Station at the time. But that day quickly turned from typical to tragic. And 20 years later, it’s still ingrained in Phagan’s memory.
As Phagan, now a supervisory Border Patrol agent assigned to the Wellton Station, headed out to the field that morning, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the death and suffering he was about to encounter. But a few hours into his shift, an agent’s worst nightmare became a reality as he came upon a group of four desperate men. The four had been part of a larger group of 28 males who crossed the border from Mexico into the United States and entered an unexpectedly hot, barren and disorienting landscape. The group, which included two guides, stepped into the desert on May 19. Two of them decided to return to Mexico, but the other 24 continued, following their guides through a terrain that would end up swallowing them whole.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how hard and unforgiving this desert is,” Phagan said as he stood in the same spot along a dirt road 30 miles south of Dateland where he encountered the four men two decades ago.
They had been sitting in the shade of a tree near the road waiting and hoping for someone to come along. When they saw Phagan approach in his Border Patrol truck, they ran toward him.
“When they got to me, they were begging for water,” he said. “I tried to cool them off by pouring water on them. They were in bad shape.”
The men told Phagan that there were several more of them in worse condition and most likely dead. With that news, an intense rescue operation was initiated. And when it was all said and done, two days later, a total of 14 migrants were dead, including one of the suspected guides.
“This is a life-or-death situation, especially in the summer,” Phagan said. “If you miss sign, someone could die. People’s lives are in your hands.”
Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeffrey Townzen had only 11 months in the patrol and six months in the field when he became part of the rescue operation that day.
“It was an eye opener,” he said. “The ones that were still alive, you could see it in their eyes that you were saving their lives. The ones you saved are the ones you remember. That was something I won’t forget.”
Chris Coleman, now a Wellton Station supervisor, was working the swing shift at the time of the rescue and spent the night backtracking the sign of a brother from the initial group of four that Phagan encountered.
“We backtracked his sign all night long and found him dead under a tree at about 1 a.m.,” he said. “That first day I remember. I remember pushing the sign. It was hard to push because the guy was all over the place. He put his shoes on the ground and folded up all his clothes with his wallet on top.
“Those were the longest [couple days] of my career,” Coleman said.
Coleman and Townzen both said the incident had a big impact on the Wellton Station, not only among the agents who were involved in the rescue but also on station operations.
“It really affected the Wellton Station and how big the station grew,” Townzen said.
In addition to adding manpower, Townzen said the station also added a forward operating camp, called Camp Grip, south of the area where the migrants died, and several rescue beacons were placed throughout the desert.
“It changed the way we did everything,” Coleman added.
Although this incident was 20 years ago, the story is still all too familiar today. Smugglers and guides regularly risk the lives of the migrants who pay them thousands of dollars for help to get into the United States. Smugglers and guides are known to abandon their groups whenever they run into an obstacle, such as a migrant getting injured or sick or detection by a Border Patrol agent. Those who can’t keep up are left behind, which seemed to be the case with this group.
When the two guides, who carelessly led these migrants into the harshest region of the Sonoran Desert, realized they were lost and the group was in trouble, they collected whatever money the migrants had left and told the group they were going to get water and that they would be back.
Agents found the guides several miles north of the initial four. One was dead and the other was near death. It is believed that they had no intention of returning to help. The surviving guide, Jesus Lopez-Ramos, who was 20 years old at the time, was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
“The thing that gets me is you still see it every day,” said Coleman, a 21-year veteran of the Border Patrol. “The smugglers, they don’t care.”
Phagan, whose account of the incident has been included in books and articles, said it seems like a long time ago, yet the picture in his mind seems like yesterday.
“It’s the most important thing I’ve done in my career,” Phagan said. “You wish it didn’t happen but you’re glad you were here. We were here.”
CASA GRANDE — The last day of school typically marks the end of a school year, but this year, the last day of school for Evergreen Elementary students and staff had a different meaning.
Earlier this year, the Casa Grande Elementary School District’s Governing Board voted to repurpose Evergreen Elementary, as it would save the district approximately $900,000.
“I believe this is a blessing in disguise,” board President Gilberto Mendez said when the board voted on the item. “The opportunity can be endless here.”
Evergreen will now be the Center for Online and Innovative Learning. However, special program and preschool students will stay enrolled at the school.
The school, at 1000 N. Amarillo St., one of the oldest in the district, has made an impact on many.
Rebecca Romo, who currently serves as principal of Cactus Middle School, was once a student at Evergreen Elementary herself. Kimberly Franco, a fifth grade teacher, has been teaching at the school for eight years.
“My favorite thing about Evergreen is that I have had the opportunity to teach several children from the same family,” Franco said. “I love hearing the kids say, ‘Oh my brother/sister had you as their teacher,’” Franco said. “Although I am sad to have to say goodbye to the majority of my colleagues, I am excited to be a part of Evergreen’s transformation into the new center.”
Other teachers have spent decades teaching at the school, like Lynette Eshom, who began her career at Evergreen Elementary fresh out of college 24 years ago.
“The last few years I have had students in my PE classes that I have had their mom and/or dad as a student years ago. It is always fun to be able to share my memories of their parents with them,” Eshom said.
“It will be a difficult transition to have to move to a different school in the district but I am OK with it because there will be students that will be there with me that attended Evergreen and so we can make this change together,” Eshom said.
Victoria Goitia-Taylor originally began as a crossing guard and continued to work different jobs around the school. For the past 15 years, Goitia-Taylor has worked as an office specialist.
“The change that is in the works will be more difficult than others but we always make the best of it,” said Goitia-Taylor.
Principal Scott Raymond has spent nearly 20 years with the district, the last four leading the school.
“My past four years at Evergreen have changed the way I view our role in the community and the role our community plays in the education of our students. Evergreen is a big family of people that care about children. Every child has unique needs, background and situation. Everyone at Evergreen takes responsibility to address those needs collectively,” said Raymond.
According to Raymond, during his time as principal, the school has focused on building strong relationships with families.
“I still wake up every day excited to come to work at Evergreen because I know that each day will be filled with interactions that are fun, challenging and consequential,” Raymond said. “As Evergreen goes through the transition from being a traditional brick and mortar campus to one that will house our online academy, I am thrilled to continue to be a part of a team that places emphasis on building a school community with the shared purpose of meeting the needs of all of our students.”
Teena Daniels served as principal from 2004 to 2007.
“As you walked onto the Evergreen campus, I often heard that Evergreen felt like a fun place to learn,” Daniels said. “I will always hold a special place in my heart for the teachers, staff and parents who touched my life while working at Evergreen.”
In March, the board approved attendance boundary changes for students who attend Evergreen Elementary. According to the scenario presented, students will be redistricted to Cottonwood Elementary, Palo Verde Elementary and Mesquite Elementary.