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Santa Cruz County leads state in vaccinations

County one of top rural counties in nation

Among rural counties, Santa Cruz County has one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S. after the county managed to fully vaccinate more than 87.7 percent of its total population. Among those eligible for vaccination, including children 12 and older, the county has a vaccination rate at nearly 100 percent, according to the CDC.

This remains in stark contrast to the overall state level, where just 57.4 percent of Arizona residents are fully vaccinated. Only Apache County remains close to Santa Cruz County's overall vaccination rate with around 85 percent of the total population vaccinated.

And Arizona's worst county, Mohave County, has covered just 39 percent of those eligible.

McKinley County, New Mexico—just northwest of Albuquerque and including Gallup and part of the Zuni Reservation— has the highest rate in the nation among rural counties, covering 97 percent of its total population. McKinley is followed by Alaska's Bristol Bay, which has a vaccination rate of 87.7 percent, though the county only has around 1,000 people.

Among Arizona's most populous counties, Pima County has remained far ahead of Maricopa County, where much of the state's earliest large-scale vaccination sites were located. Pima County has a vaccination rate of around 65.6 percent, and Maricopa, has an overall vaccination rate of just 55.3 percent.

Nationally, around 54.4 percent of the total population has been vaccinated, and about 63.6 percent of those 12 and older were vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Since vaccinations began in December, the U.S. has administered 383 million doses of the three COVID-19 vaccines, covering around 180 million people. Another 2 million people have received a booster shot since Aug. 13, the CDC said.

Jeff Terrell, the health services director for Santa Cruz County said the result came from a team effort between the county, officials with Mariposa Community Health Center, and the City of Nogales.

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"We built a team with Mariposa and the city to get the site running, and then we did outreach every way we could. We did Facebook Live events, radio interviews, anything to get the message out that we were ready. And people were really receptive to get the vaccine."

Terrell said even as Santa Cruz County began by vaccinating those over 75—following the recommendations from the state—he found that younger people were clamoring for the vaccine.

"This is a smaller community, and it's a community culture with a lot of families who wanted to get vaccinated to protect their loved ones, and that really helped in vaccinations," Terrell said. He said that older people in the community pushed to get their shots as well. "Honestly, as soon as they were eligible, they really did jump in and got vaccinated. They wanted to get back to seeing their grand-kids, and their families and getting back to a normal."

Terrell said that the county was hampered only by a lack of vaccine doses. Early in the vaccination effort, Santa Cruz received fewer doses, especially as state officials spun up the large-scale vaccination sites in Maricopa County, and that shift meant that Santa Cruz "didn't get many doses," Terrell said. "That slowed us down, but we begged and borrowed doses to get as many as we could. And, as more was coming in, we immediately got them into people's arms.

Working in a partnership, the group set up the county's point-of-distribution and administered more 73,219 shots, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

This is significantly more than the county's population of about 46,500 people, owing to the county's distribution of vaccines to people who live in neighboring Nogales, Sonora and travel to Santa Cruz County to work, said Terrell.

"A lot of people work in the produce industry here," Terrell said. "They cross over and work in our community, so we felt that was a priority, to get those who lived and worked in this community — to get them vaccinated."

Terrell said the county worked with the little-celebrated Office of Border Health, a part of Arizona Department of Health Services, to work across the line with their Mexican counterparts.

While this pales in comparison to distribution points across the state—the state-run distribution points in the state administered 1.6 million doses from Feb. to July—the county nonetheless managed to get nearly 95.2 percent of those 18-and older by July, according to the National Association of Counties and the CDC.

While Santa Cruz County leads the state in vaccinations, Mohave County has fallen far behind, fully vaccinating just 39 percent of eligible residents. Mohave County reported 684 COVID-19 cases over the last seven days, and the county's positivity rate is over 18 percent. Cases have declined in Mohave over the past week, but the county reported 24 deaths, and 166 hospitalizations.

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In the last week, the number of people who died in Mohave County from COVID-19 when adjusted for population was more than three times as high as Maricopa County's and nearly four times as high as Pima County's.

In comparison, Santa Cruz County reported just 72 cases, with a positivity rate of just 7 percent, and the county had just one hospitalization over the last week, according to the CDC.

Mohave's vaccination rate remains low in spite of Arizona Governor Doug Ducey's full-court press to get the state vaccinated. While Ducey has repeatedly argued that vaccinations are key to ending the pandemic, vaccination rates among Republican-leaning counties like Mohave have remained low compared to Democratic-leaning Santa Cruz.

Last week, Dr. Richard Carmona, the senior health advisor for vaccinations, referred to the "narrative" around vaccinations. Tapped by Ducey to help ADHS after he spent months running the University of Arizona's COVID-19 response, Carmona said that COVID-19 is "more than a serious public health issue that poses a grave threat to countless lives."

"Getting where we need to be will require separating politics from public health," Carmona said. "Public health makes recommendations, such as urging everyone to wear masks indoors while COVID-19 spread is substantial." We can't let strident arguments about mandating or not mandating masks and vaccines distract from the real problem: Not enough of us have been vaccinated."

"A little more than half of our state and nation have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. We've made tremendous progress since the vaccine first became available. We've got to do more," he said. "The fastest way to ensure we get COVID-19 out of circulation, support our businesses, relieve the strain on our healthcare system, and keep our children safely in school is by getting vaccinated."

"We need to convince Arizonans, some of whom are hesitant, of the value of getting vaccinated and making good health decisions when it comes to COVID-19," he said, writing that public health officials face a challenge convincing everyone that "it is in their best interests and society's best interests to get vaccinated."

"We must help people understand that getting vaccinated means a thriving economy and more job opportunities, children learning safely at school and preparing themselves for successful futures, and enough hospital capacity so we all can get medical care when we need it," he said. "All of that is in addition to reinforcing that COVID-19 is now primarily a pandemic of the unvaccinated, with the risk of being hospitalized and dying more than 10 times greater among those who aren't fully vaccinated."

Terrell said he expects the county will be able to quickly shift to vaccinate children ages 5-11 after Pfizer-BioNTech said that study results show the vaccine is effective for kids. While kids 12 and over have been able to get the vaccine for months, the younger age group has been forced to wait as researchers evaluated the vaccine's efficacy.

Terrell said that the county expects to set up pop-up sites at schools, rather than a single distribution site. "I think we'll get a good response to getting the younger kids vaccinated," he said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

People waiting in line for vaccines at Tucson Medical Center in January.

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