Arizona vaccine providers will need to shift into a higher gear if the state hopes to reach President Joe Biden’s goal of 70% of adults having received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot by July 4.
About 58% of Arizonans 18 and older had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Friday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The comparable percentage of all U.S. adults with at least one dose was 63%.
With a higher share of unvaccinated people, it’s likely the virus will continue to spread, and even with cases at relatively lower levels, people will continue to get infected and die from the virus, possibly at higher rates than in states with more people vaccinated.
In a ranking that goes from highest to lowest, the CDC places Arizona 33rd out of U.S. states plus territories for its percentage of the total population that’s been vaccinated. Vermont is the state in the top spot, with 71% of its total population (and 82% of its adult population) having received at least one vaccine dose as of Friday, the CDC says.
In terms of total population with at least one dose, Arizona is at about 47% compared to 51% nationwide, per the CDC. For those 12 and older, Arizona is at 55% compared to the national 60.5%.
Biden on Wednesday declared June a “national month of action” and said he wants the country to boost its vaccine uptake to 70% of the adult population over the age of 18. Twelve states had already met that goal as of Friday, per the CDC.
Dr. Cara Christ, the Arizona Department of Health Services director, said Friday that the state would “love to hit that 70% goal by July 4,” but that officials will continue working on vaccine uptake whether it reaches that target or not.
Demand for the COVID-19 vaccine in Arizona has been waning in recent weeks, which Christ said could make it more difficult to reach the 70% level.
“A lot of Arizonans are independent, they want to make these decisions on their own,” Christ said. “I think there are a number of factors that play a role in why we’re slowing down.”
Christ said some of the groups that state health officials will be making a stepped-up effort to reach with vaccine messaging are veterans, Black men and younger men between the ages of 18 and 30.
‘We’re going to get there, but it’s going to take longer’
Based on the pace of vaccinations in Arizona, it’s questionable whether the state can make it to 70% by Biden’s target date.
A New York Times analysis on Thursday put Arizona in the group of states that will be close but will not reach the 70% goal by July 4 without speeding up; Arizona is projected to be at 62% of adults vaccinated by then. It will take two months for Arizona to hit 70%, the Times found.
Health experts say smaller, labor-intensive vaccine events targeting vulnerable communities will need to continue throughout the state in order to make progress.
“Where we are now is we already took care of the very vaccine-welcoming part of our population — the folks who really wanted to get vaccinated by and large have probably already had an opportunity to do so,” said Elizabeth Jacobs, an epidemiologist and public health professor at the University of Arizona. “We have to work harder for every shot. That’s where we are now.”
Jacobs recently worked at a community vaccination event at a swap meet that administered doses to 500 people over three days, which she categorized as a success. But those numbers are small compared to mass-vaccination sites, she said.
“If you want to see numbers, these efforts might seem like they are not bearing as much fruit, but they are because we are hitting these critically underserved populations. It just takes a lot more effort,” she said.
The reason it’s important to make progress is not just about reaching a goal, it’s about protecting state residents from future outbreaks. While the state has reopened and the pandemic seems to be winding down, people in Arizona are still getting infected and dying of COVID-19.
Arizona’s seven-day COVID-19 case and death rates remain higher than most of the country, CDC data show.
The state’s seven-day case rate per 100,000 people ranked seventh on Friday among all states and territories, up from 23rd a week ago and 51st in late March.
And Arizona’s seven-day death rate per 100,000 ranked 17th on Friday, compared to 13th a week ago and 31st two weeks ago, per the CDC.
“At the point we can say we have herd immunity is when we start to see a sustained decline in cases at some point in the next month or so,” said Will Humble, a former state health director who is now executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.
“We’re going to get there, but it’s going to take longer — getting there is going to take longer when we’re only vaccinating 10,000 or 15,000 people a day, which is where we’re at.”
Arizona is a C student when it comes to vaccine uptake
Christ this week told Phoenix radio station KTAR (92.3 FM) that Arizona is “right on track where we thought we would be” with its COVID-19 vaccination uptake, and characterized Arizona as “consistent with the rest of the country.”
Arizona has excelled in vaccinating people living in rural parts of the state, as well as in areas with a high so-called social vulnerability index, Christ said during the interview.
The social vulnerability index scores geographical areas based on 15 social factors, including poverty, lack of vehicle access, and crowded housing — all factors that could make an area more vulnerable during a crisis.
“It’s widely available and it’s never been easier to get a vaccine,” Christ said.
The vaccine may be widely available, but not everyone is getting one. And, some in public health worry that because COVID-19 is less of a threat now than several months ago, people are less motivated to get the vaccine.
“Going into this I would have expected us to be higher because I thought that given what we’ve all lived through, more people would have strongly wanted the vaccine than did,” said Dr. Bob England, a former longtime Maricopa County health director, and now Arizona medical director for Curative Medical Associates, a company that is administering the COVID-19 vaccine.
“To say this is a disappointment is an understatement, and I’m not just talking about Arizona. It’s nationally, too.”
Humble, the former state health director, said he would classify Arizona as a “C student” when compared with other states’ COVID-19 vaccination rates.
“Arizona’s a C student and then your D students are mostly in the deep South and Idaho and Wyoming,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone really knows whether we’re in the bottom half because we did a bad job or because the politics of it, especially in the rural counties. I don’t know. But we’re definitely not an A or B student.”
Humble did note that “it’s not all gloom and doom” — looking globally, Arizona is in a very good position with its vaccine rate.
“So we’re not doing great compared to the rest of the U.S. in terms of vaccine administration, but if you look at us globally, we’re like rock stars. We’re just really spoiled.”
Arizona lags behind the national average when it comes to flu vaccination rates, too. Data from the 2019-2020 flu season shows 46.5% of Arizonans received a flu shot, while the national average was 52%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In a ranking that goes from best to worst, Arizona is 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for its flu vaccination rate, a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis says.
About the same percentage of Arizonans have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as got the flu vaccine in 2019-2020. Christ said since COVID-19 has been more present and on people’s minds than influenza typically is, she hopes more Arizonans will get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I’d like to get to the 70%, but it’s so hard to put a number when you have to go talk to people individually to now start encouraging people to get vaccinated.”
Politics may be at play
At least some degree of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy appears to be political, which could be why Arizona is trailing the national average, England said.
“We’re a bit redder than the national average. And that’s not the only group that’s vaccine hesitant. But if you look at a map of the U.S., if you look at maps of rates of vaccine uptake, it’s the same as voting. That says a lot,” England said.
“For reasons that I honestly don’t understand, you can see it divide down political lines. There’s no rational reason that masks and vaccine should have become politicized, but it seems to have occurred.”
Humble said the same thing, that the vaccine rate map and electoral map almost match up. There may be two reasons for differences between states, he said. First is how interested people are in getting vaccinated, and politics plays a part in that. Second is how well the state’s public health system provided vaccine, he said.
The most recent Vaccine Monitor Report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nationally, younger adults and Black adults remain disproportionately likely to say they will wait and see before getting a vaccine, while Republicans, rural residents and white evangelical Christians are disproportionately likely to say they will definitely not get vaccinated. The report is based on a national telephone survey of 1,526 adults ages 18 and older conducted May 18 to May 25, of 1,526 adults ages 18 and older. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.
“When you see those differences by political party in terms of vaccine acceptability, you really have to wonder, is this actually about a vaccine or is this about some other belief system?,” said Jacobs, the UA professor.
“If we are trying to approach those groups by convincing them that this vaccine is necessary and safe, we might not get any traction at all because it’s not the vaccine itself that is the concern, it is the sense of freedom or rights to decide whether you get vaccinated or not that supersedes the scientific arguments.”
“Trusted brokers” such as family doctors can make a big difference in answering questions from people who may still be on the fence, Jacobs and England said.
England said global levels of COVID-19 infection are a continuing concern, which is why it’s important to reach herd immunity not only in the U.S., but globally, too.
“I am truly worried that the level of disease globally is still almost as high as it has ever been. That gives plenty of opportunity for this virus to keep mutating over and over and over and eventually wind up with something that our vaccines don’t work against and put us back at square one. That is still possible.”
Reach the reporter at Stephanie.Innes@gannett.com or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes.
Reach the reporter at Alison.Steinbach@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-4282. Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.
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