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Arizona No. 1 in getting COVID shots to rural residents
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Arizona No. 1 in getting COVID shots to rural residents

A sign urging safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic is seen in Teesto, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation in February. Teesto workers, health representatives, volunteers and neighbors keep close tabs on another to ensure the most vulnerable citizens get the help they need. 

Arizona is the most successful state nationwide for immunizing adults against COVID-19 in its smaller rural counties, says a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranking.

A CDC report shows 59%, or 156,182 Arizona residents 18 and older, in Navajo, Apache, Gila, Santa Cruz, Graham, La Paz and Greenlee counties had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of April 10. The national average for rural areas was 38.9%.

“If we go back to January and February and look at the progress we’ve made since then, it’s astounding and impressive how much our communities have come together to address this,” said Dr. Daniel Derksen, a professor of public health in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

Derksen and his colleague, Dr. Cecilia Rosales, director of the Primary Prevention Mobile Health Unit Program, have helped lead the effort since early February.

“There are a lot of things we’re doing well, and it’s nice to have that be the emphasis,” said Derksen, who is also associate vice president for health equity, outreach and interprofessional activities with the UA Health Sciences.

February is when an initiative called Mobile Outreach Vaccination and Education for Underserved Populations, or MOVE UP, got fully underway to get vaccines to hard-to-reach populations starting with both rural and urban areas of Maricopa County, including dairy, chicken and produce farms. Also targeted were community centers, senior housing, elder- and long-term care facilities, and schools.

That effort then expanded to areas that include Santa Cruz, Cochise and Graham counties in Southern Arizona.

Derksen said one focus has been getting vaccines to farm workers and “big rig” truck drivers, including those hauling produce into Arizona from Mexico.

“For a lot of these workers, it’s hard to get away from work to get vaccinated so we’re trying to make it as easy as possible,” he said.

This is the second time in recent months that Arizona’s vaccination efforts have been favorably mentioned in the same CDC publication, its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In March, Arizona ranked among the best states for getting the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable communities.

“Arizona’s ranking among rural counties calls attention not just to the strong vaccination efforts of our tribal nations but to the good work of local public health departments in these areas,” said Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

However, Arizona does not rank as well for its urban areas, where about 43.9% of those 18 and older had been vaccinated compared to the national average for these areas of 45.7%.

So far, there have been more than 874,600 known cases of COVID-19 in Arizona and nearly 17,500 deaths.

Gila County also received national attention for rapidly moving through phases of vaccine prioritization and opening vaccination to everyone 18 and older by early March.

The Navajo Nation, which includes large portions of Navajo and Apache counties, reported in late April that more than half of its adult population had been vaccinated against COVID-19, and this month it reported more than 100,000 residents fully vaccinated.

Santa Cruz County has the state’s highest per capita vaccination rate, the CDC report says.

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 520-235-0308.


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