BISBEE — The delta variant of COVID–19 is still a problem in Cochise County, but it is not producing the high number of positive cases the original virus did a year ago.

The Cochise Health and Social Services infectious disease team met with Board of Supervisors members Ann English, Peggy Judd and Tom Crosby to give them the latest information based on county statistics in a work session Sept. 10.

The county and the state are rated high for transmission of the virus. Of the 50 states, Nebraska is the only one with low transmission of the virus.

“Not even COVID wants to live in Nebraska,” joked county epidemiologist Martha Montano during her overview.

She said since last year when the pandemic began, there have been 13,456 positive cases of COVID-19 and its variants. Of those, 793 ended up hospitalized and 307 people have died, which includes 14 deaths in July and August.

Since the meeting, the numbers have increased to 13,718 positive cases and 312 deaths.

Over the past couple of months hospitalizations have dropped overall, and though there was an uptick in breakthrough cases of people fully vaccinated in August, the number has dropped again, according to her presentation. Since February 2020 there have been 144 breakthrough cases. There were two people who had breakthrough cases and had to be hospitalized.

The onset of the delta variant in August far exceeded the numbers from the first of the year. There were three cases in February and 80 in August.

Through Sept. 10, there have been 21 breakthrough cases out of 61,115 who are fully vaccinated, Montano noted.

“That’s less than 1% of those vaccinated,” Montano said. “The vaccine works.”

In an interview, Copper Queen Community Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Edward Miller noted local hospitals are having difficulty finding rooms available in Tucson and Phoenix hospitals for vaccinated patients with underlying medical emergencies due to the increase in hospitalizations of non–vaccinated people.

“We see one to five people a week who are ill,” he said. “In Arizona, 98.9% of patients with COVID are unvaccinated.”

Nathalie O’Shea, the county’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness specialist, said the number of vaccinated people is at 53.1 percent as vaccine hesitancy still holds some back from getting their shots.

She reported 76.1% of people 65 and older have been vaccinated. Of those 55 to 64, 63.1% received vaccinations. Of people 35 to 54, 57.1% have received vaccinations. Those 20 to 34 are at 50% and those younger than 20 are at less than 20%.

It is uncertain when vaccinations for children younger than 12 will be approved, although some could be available in September for 5- to 12-year-olds and November for 2- to 5-year-olds.

There was some discussion about the efficacy of the three vaccines — Jessen, Pfizer and Moderna — against the delta and other variants. CCHS Director Alicia Thompson explained the vaccine was like the annual influenza shot which provides immunity to a number of viral variations.

COVID-19 in schools

Daniel Williamson, county medical epidemiologist, has been working with the schools as a liaison and told the supervisors 24 schools in the county met the definition of outbreak, which is two or more cases in a school building. The schools update him on the number of students who tested positive and he tracks each school to see if there are more cases within a certain time period.

“Up to today, there have been 253 known positive cases associated with the schools since the beginning of the school year,” he said. “Most schools have been diligently communicating their situations with CHSS, performing contact tracing and issuing quarantine instructions for exposed students and staff.”

Six children were hospitalized, he said.

Though the county has offered free testing programs funded through the Arizona Department of Health Services to all schools, only one charter has signed up. Parental consent is necessary to take the test.

Students in each classroom would take their nose sample and put them in bags to be tested. If there is a positive result, an ADHS staff member will come in with rapid antigen tests and run a test on each student to find where the positive case came from.

Two school districts and several charter schools have a mask mandate in effect, but it will “likely end” Sept. 29 when a bill banning mask mandates on campuses goes into effect.

Williamson said if the exposed person is fully vaccinated and symptom free, he or she does not need to quarantine, but a COVID-19 test should be taken five days after exposure and the person should continue to wear a mask. If the exposed person has had a documented COVID-19 infection within the previous 90 days and antibodies are present, they do not need to quarantine if they are symptom free.

Thompson noted President Joe Biden issued an executive order concerning the virus, testing and vaccines. The county legal department is working with CHSS on the order.

“Things are changing rapidly,” Thompson said.

Judd said, “I always appreciated getting a note from the school telling me if a child in one of my kids’ classes had lice or pink eye. I wanted to know if my kids or grandkids are coming over with head lice or pink eye.”

Judd recommended parents talk with their doctors and ask questions about the virus and contact tracing to alleviate concerns.

English said children are expected to stay home whenever they are sick with COVID-19 or mumps or measles, two other illnesses which are easily spread. If a person is diagnosed with hepatitis B, the health department “was obligated” to determine the people he or she had been in contact with while infected. That has been in practice for the past 50 years.

“It’s not just that COVID-19 is the first time contact tracing has been done,” she added. “Parents want to know what’s going on in the classroom. We have a responsibility to work with the schools.”

About the mask controversy

Thompson noted to mask or not to mask “has been a subject of controversy since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.”

Recently released was information from India, where the delta variant was found. Researchers tracked 342,126 people in 600 villages in rural Bangladesh from November 2020 to April 2021.

The study was to discover just how much transmission was reduced with masks, she said. Subjects were provided cloth masks, reusable surgical masks or none.

“The bottom line was what they found out was that the reusable surgical masks were effective in reducing COVID-19 symptoms,” Thompson said. “When they compared the three, the villages that received the surgical masks had a significantly better health outcome than those who did not get masks.

“It showed that the study tripled mask usage and reduced symptomatic infections, demonstrating that promoting community mask-wearing can improve public health. Villages received free masks as well as information on the importance of masking, how important role models of community leaders is and provided in-person reminders for eight weeks.

“The study’s authors found that surgical masks, but not cloth masks, reduced transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in villages where the research team distributed face masks and promoted their use. The data show that even after 10 washes, reusable surgical masks filter out 76% of small particles capable of airborne transmission.”

On the heels of that study, Thompson is looking into buying surgical masks through a new funding opportunity for all students and school staff in the county so they may be available for each student or staff member who wants one.

She plans to ask the supervisors to approve the funding and thinks by then there will be more definitive results about mask usage.

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