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As vaccination continues to march ahead in Nogales and around the nation, the rate of new COVID-19 cases has subsided. Locally, the rates of new and severe cases have fallen dramatically since peaking around the holiday season.

In the past four weeks, Santa Cruz County has confirmed just 148 new cases – an average of 37 per week. By comparison, the county was recording more than 400 new cases per week at the height of the winter surge.

Also in the last four weeks, there have been a total of 10 new COVID-related deaths recorded and 13 more hospitalizations of community members – a marked slowdown as well.

Dr. Eladio Pereira, chief medical officer for the Mariposa Community Health Center, attributed the decline in local infections to two factors: vaccination efforts and face mask use.

Pereira said he’s noticed a major decline in the number of folks calling with symptoms and seeking COVID-19 testing. In the midst of the winter spike, he said, the health center would regularly conduct 120 tests daily; now, that number is sometimes as low as two or three.

“I think vaccination probably plays a really important role” in preventing infection and particularly severe cases that result in hospitalization or death, he said.

While the county’s vaccination effort hasn’t reached enough people to achieve what epidemiologists call “herd immunity,” Pereira said that having thousands of people immunized is enough to begin to slow transmission.

People who’ve been inoculated can still, in rare cases, fall sick with COVID-19, but Pereira said it’s possible that the antibodies created through inoculation mean those people are less likely to transmit the infection to others.

As of Monday, state data showed that 10,768 people in Santa Cruz County had received at least one dose of the Moderna vaccine, and 5,844 had been fully vaccinated.

In addition, there had been 7,626 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Santa Cruz County since the start of the pandemic, and people who survive an infection will have developed antibodies that can help ward off future infections. Jeff Terrell, the county’s director of health services, previously told the NI he didn’t know the number of people here who had received a vaccine after having had a COVID-19 infection.

The county’s U.S. Census-estimated population is 46,500, though some people who have received the vaccine here are not local residents.

Words of caution

The encouraging trends have led to policy changes that mean the local economy and schools will inch closer to normal in coming weeks.

In an executive order issued last Friday, Gov. Doug Ducey lifted capacity restrictions at Arizona’s bars, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters, meaning those businesses can operate at their regular capacity levels. The executive order states that businesses still need to follow pandemic safety guidelines including “ensuring physical distancing” and requiring face masks, but state and local authorities have shown little appetite for enforcing such guidelines.

Also following the governor’s orders, all local school districts will offer hybrid or fully in-person classes by next Monday, March 15. The return will roughly coincide with the one-year anniversary of local schools switching to online learning as the pandemic took hold in Arizona.

At the Nogales Unified District, the county’s largest by student population, most students have been at home for the entirety of the past school year, except for a brief experiment in hybrid learning last October that was called off after one week.

While the current trajectory appears positive, some healthcare professionals are raising concerns that the country could see another surge in cases this spring if folks decide to rip off their face masks and abandon social distancing too soon, particularly given the circulation in the United States of an even-more-infectious strain of the coronavirus originally identified in Britain.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, said in a Friday news conference that, on a national level, new cases have plateaued after falling – and that might be a bad sign.

“When you have that much of viral activity in a plateau, it almost invariably means that you are at risk for another spike,” Fauci said.

Pereira said that he’s getting fewer calls lately from residents with COVID-19 symptoms and more from people wondering when they return to their regular lifestyles.

“I already have people asking if (they) can go back to normal life,” Pereira said. “The answer is no.”

Although the city of Nogales, Sonora hasn't vaccinated nearly as many people as Santa Cruz County, new case numbers have also slowed there. 

On Monday, the Sonora state government reported a total of 4,342 cases and 479 deaths in the city since the start of the pandemic. Those numbers marked one-week increases of 32 cases and four deaths.

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