BISBEE — “We’re all sick and tired of the pandemic. But, as long as we have a large portion of our population who are not vaccinated, the virus will continue to mutate and infect us.”

Alicia Thompson, Director of Cochise Health and Social Services, (CCHS), and her pandemic team met Friday with Supervisors Ann English and Peggy Judd to discuss the positive cases of the delta strain of the COVID–19 virus are beginning to appear more frequently in the county.

She added, “The virus takes advantage of us and mutates. We know through science and research the vaccine works. It’s safe.”

Martha Montano, county epidemiologist, reported there were 79 cases in June, then rose to 157 in July. Two new deaths were reported due to the virus over the past month. These cases are showing up in unvaccinated people in the more populated areas of the county, like Sierra Vista, Willcox, Benson and Douglas. With cases rising in the more populated areas of the state, there can be even more opportunities to spread the virus due to people traveling.

“Santa Cruz, Pima, Pinal, Graham and Greenlee counties which surround Cochise County are reporting more cases of the delta variant,” she added. “In May, Arizona’s positive cases were running 66 percent of the alpha virus and only three percent were from delta. In June, it changed and the delta variant led with 36 percent of the cases with the alpha strain dropping to 34 percent.”

The biggest factor in the spread of the delta variant is unvaccinated people, said Thompson. The states with the lowest rate of vaccinations are the ones with the highest numbers of new cases.

Ginger Dixon, a contracted epidemiologist, said there have been “breakthrough” cases where the virus infected fully vaccinated people, yet the people had no symptoms and spread the virus to others.

Nonvaccinated people can infect vaccinated people who do not know they have been infected because they show slight or no symptoms at all, Dixon explained.

In Cochise County, there have been 34 breakthrough cases, said Thompson.

Craig Janiszewski, county Public Health Emergency Preparedness coordinator, stated, “The best tool we have is the vaccine. We knew it wouldn’t be 100 percent effective, none of them are. But, it’s better to get vaccinated.”

Thompson said, “We know wearing masks helps reduce transmission. Even if you are vaccinated, if you are around someone who is susceptible due to medical conditions, you should wear a mask.”

English asked, “It’s would you rather wear a mask or a ventilator. We’ve told and given our residents every opportunity to get tested and vaccinated. It’s up to them to make the choice.”

The Delta variant is regarded as highly contagious, more so than the original, alpha strain, and in response to an uptick nationwide, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC). The agency recommended vaccinated and unvaccinated people continue to wear masks in closed public areas, or around people who may be at risk and more susceptible to the disease. Masks for children, educators and staff are still recommended to those teaching and attending in person classes.

Vaccines are available throughout the county in pharmacies, doctors’ offices, clinics and people may not need appointments. They can just walk in, said Camila Roche, public information officer. People with active addresses in the county will be receiving a post card in the mail with all the information needed to get tested or get vaccinated.

Of the county’s population of 125,922 people, according to the Census Bureau, half have yet to be vaccinated. A total of 56,397 are fully vaccinated.

For more information, visit the website: https://covid-cochisehealth.hub.arcgis.com/ or call CHSS at: (844) 542-8201.

No mask mandate for post

At the federal level, the Biden administration and the military are making moves to increase masks and vaccinations.

While the U.S. Department of Defense is mandating that individuals wear face masks indoors in high-traffic areas at all military installations regardless of vaccination status, the commanding general at Fort Huachuca said he won’t make masks mandatory on post for now.

Major General Tony Hale said that because Cochise County and surrounding areas are listed as “moderate,” he is not instituting masks for the post. DoD guidance recommends masks for area with high community spread and transmission rates.

The major general posted this statement on Fort Huachuca’s Facebook page:

“Fort Huachuca and the surrounding counties are listed as moderate. In light of Fort Huachuca being within a moderate area, I will not make masks mandatory inside Fort Huachuca facilities at this time.

As an installation, the Fort Huachuca community has worked together to face the COVID-19 pandemic together. We have maintained a safe bubble here on post through vigilance, mitigation and working together to quickly identify and isolate positive cases. This is why I am willing to continue to operate under the current General Order #13 Change 1.

In accordance with GO #13 Change 1, LTC/O-5 Directors and above have the ability to increase requirements within their facilities if they deem it necessary based on mission requirements, or where additional mitigation measures are required.

In addition, should we see a continued uptick in positive COVID numbers in the area or a move into the “substantial” or “high” community transmission rate, I will look to re-impose a mask mandate in line with the Deputy Secretary of Defense guidance.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story indicated General Hale is not following Dept. of Defense mask guidelines. Hale is following DoD guidelines for area with moderate spread.