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Arizona Western College EMT Academy students Natus Humphrey, left, and Shayla Watson explain the procedure and hand out kits to participants in a drive-thru COVID-19 saliva test on the main campus at the school in Yuma in this file photo.

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NAU grad Denise Ocampo aims to continue learning through medical career

When first-generation college student Denise Ocampo, 21, was preparing to attend Northern Arizona University, she first thought she would study business, taking after her parents who are small business owners in Ocampo’s hometown of Maui, Hawaii.

Following her unexpected success in a high school biology class, though, she altered course and instead headed toward the medical field, a decision further validated by her experiences while at NAU that earned her a President’s Prize, the highest award for NAU undergrads.

“My life philosophy is everybody has something to teach and everybody has something to learn. So when there’s always something you constantly have to be learning and just a constant flow of information, I really like that because I feel like things are always changing and innovating in medicine, so you’re never going to know everything,” Ocampo said.

After graduating from NAU this semester, Ocampo plans to spend a year and a half gaining more medical experience, especially working with patients, before she applies to medical school. She has been an emergency medical technician with Flagstaff Ranch for about a year and was recently hired as a medical scribe at Flagstaff Medical Center.

Her ultimate goal, though, is to become a physician who not only works with patients but also researches pancreatic cancer screening methods.

She said she has been interested in this particular topic ever since she lost a close family friend to the disease five years ago because it was diagnosed too late.

Now she hopes someday to find a solution to this and other health concerns.

“I want to just find a new way so that it’s not caught so late,” Ocampo said. “One of my biggest issues in working in teams is people look for temporary fixes and I don’t like that. So being a physician, I feel like I would have that autonomy to make those long-term decisions and long-term fixes to improve someone’s life.”

Seeking solutions has already been a theme throughout her postsecondary education, during which she not only contributed to health research but also helped implement policies on campus to improve student health.

Ocampo got her first taste of medical research working with JJ Duke, NAU assistant professor of biological sciences, as she was able to assist primarily with his research on the lung functions of adults who were born premature.

Although Ocampo admitted she initially got involved in undergraduate research simply to prepare for medical school, she said she enjoyed the work more than she expected, and is now seriously considering specializing in neonatology.

Since her second semester at NAU, Ocampo was also active in NAU’s Student Health Advocacy Committee (SHAC), which aims to create a healthier campus. During her time on the committee, SHAC was able to advocate for and implement a medical amnesty protocol, which helps reduce the disciplinary action for students calling emergency medical services for an overdose of drugs or alcohol, in order to encourage students to call 911 whenever they are in need of help.

It was through SHAC that Ocampo was able to create the Mental Health Support Squad, a student-lead organization to support students’ mental health. More than 70 students have completed the program’s two-day training, which equips them to respond to possible mental health crises and direct those in need to available resources.

“They’re by no means therapists or anything like that and we tell them they’re not expected to be,” Ocampo said. “It’s like being that first responder to a situation who can really help out a person because they know how to figure out a situation, what that person needs. Not everybody needs to make an appointment with [NAU] Counseling Services. A lot of times, they just need someone to talk to.”

With the NAU semester coming to an end and as Ocampo begins the next steps in her medical career, she said she also hopes to be able to give back to the community that has supported her throughout her undergraduate career.

“NAU and Flagstaff are just so welcoming, and I just really enjoyed being here and meeting everybody,” Ocampo said. “I was never told that I couldn’t do it here. Nobody ever told me, ‘You’re not good enough.’ People were always just like, ‘Just do it, you can do it,’ and that was great. I feel like that made me want to be that person for other people, too. NAU mentored me and Flagstaff mentored me and I want to mentor other people.”

Pfizer seeks emergency vaccine use
  • Updated

Pfizer formally asked U.S. regulators Friday to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine, starting the clock on a process that could bring limited first shots as early as next month and eventually an end to the pandemic — but not until after a long, hard winter.

The action comes days after Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech announced that its vaccine appears 95% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 disease in a large, ongoing study.

The companies said that protection plus a good safety record means the vaccine should qualify for emergency use authorization, something the Food and Drug Administration can grant before the final testing is fully complete. In addition to the FDA submission, they have already started "rolling" applications in Europe and the U.K. and intend to submit similar information soon.

With the coronavirus surging around the U.S. and the world, the pressure is on for regulators to make a speedy decision.

"Help is on the way," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert said on the eve of Pfizer's announcement, adding that it's too early to abandon masks and other protective measures. "We need to actually double down on the public health measures as we're waiting for that help to come."

Meanwhile, the surging coronavirus is taking an increasingly dire toll across the U.S. just as a vaccine appears close at hand, with the country now averaging over 1,300 COVID-19 deaths per day — the highest level since the calamitous spring in and around New York City.

The overall U.S. death toll has reached about 254,000, by far the most in the world. Confirmed infections have eclipsed more than 11.8 million, after the biggest one-day gain on record Thursday — almost 188,000. And the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 hit another all-time high at more than 80,000.

With health experts deeply afraid Thanksgiving travel and holiday gatherings next week will fuel the spread of the virus, many states and cities are imposing near-lockdowns or other restrictions. California ordered a 10 p.m.-to 5-a.m. curfew starting Saturday, covering 94% of the state’s 40 million residents.

The Texas border county of El Paso, where more than 300 people have died from COVID-19 since October, is advertising jobs for morgue workers capable of lifting bodies weighing 175 pounds more. Officials are offering more than $27 an hour for work described as not only physically arduous but “emotionally taxing as well.”

The county had already begun paying jail inmates $2 an hour to help move corpses and has ordered at least 10 refrigerated trucks as morgues run out of room.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are at their highest level since late May, when the Northeast was emerging from the first wave of the crisis. They peaked at about 2,200 a day in late April, when New York City was the epicenter and bodies were being loaded onto refrigerated trucks by forklift.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has ruled out another shutdown and singled out El Paso county leaders for not enforcing restrictions already in place. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, likened the county's chief administrator to a “tyrant” after Paxton won an appeals court ruling blocking local leaders from shutting down gyms and other nonessential businesses.

Friday's emergency use filing sets off a chain of events as the FDA and its independent advisers debate if the shots are ready. If so, still another government group will have to decide how the initial limited supplies are rationed out to anxiously awaiting Americans.

How much vaccine is available and when is a moving target, but initial supplies will be scarce and rationed. Globally, Pfizer has estimated it could have 50 million doses available by year's end.

About 25 million may become available for U.S. use in December, 30 million in January and 35 million more in February and March, according to information presented to the National Academy of Medicine this week. Recipients will need two doses, three weeks apart. The U.S. government has a contract to buy millions of Pfizer-BioNTech doses, as well as other candidates than pan out, and has promised shots will be free.

Not far behind is competitor Moderna Inc.'s COVID-19 vaccine. Its early data suggests the shots are as strong as Pfizer's, and that company expects to also seek emergency authorization within weeks.

The public's first chance to see how strong the evidence really is will come Dec. 10 at a public meeting of the FDA's scientific advisers.

So far, what's known is based only on statements from Pfizer and BioNTech. Of 170 infections detected to date, only eight were among people who'd received the actual vaccine and the rest had gotten a dummy shot. On the safety side, the companies cite results from 38,000 study participants who've been tracked for two months after their second dose. That's a milestone FDA set because historically, vaccine side effects don't crop up later than that.

"We'll drill down on these data," said FDA adviser Dr. Paul Offit of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

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In Washington, Babbott backs bill to burn forest waste for renewable energy

WASHINGTON -- Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott urged senators this week to pass a bill that would let limbs and trees left over from forest maintenance be burned for renewable energy.

Babbott, testifying before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee, said the lack of a market for forest waste has been a bottleneck choking efforts to clear national forests of undergrowth and halt the growth of catastrophic wildfires.

“The rules have changed, we can’t use the same strategies that used to work because they don’t work anymore,” said Babbott, who punctuated his remarks by noting that he had received notice during his testimony of another wildfire breaking out in the county.

But a coalition of environmental groups blasted the bill as “a false solution in search of a problem,” and one that would “only intensify wildland fires, harm communities, and exacerbate the climate and biodiversity crisis.” The coalition includes the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Western Environmental Law Center.

“Forest biomass burning is not a climate solution and should not be considered a distributed renewable energy resource,” said the letter that was submitted for the hearing. “When we burn forest biomass for bioenergy, we release carbon into the air, and even when trees are regrown, the climate impacts last for decades to centuries.”

The Forest Health and Biomass Energy Act of 2020, sponsored by Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, would help address the problem by making it easier for loggers to collect small trees, limbs and tree tops that are removed as part of forest restoration efforts and send them to biomass power plants.

The hearing comes during a year in which Arizona has seen a sharp increase in wildfires, with 2,375 blazes as of Monday that had burned more than 955,000 acres so far this year, said Tiffany Davila, a spokeswoman with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

And that pales in comparison to states like California, where 9,279 fires have burned almost 4.2 million acres and led to 31 deaths this year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fires will only get worse, witnesses told the committee, unless action is taken to manage overgrowth of forests on public lands.

“If we do not have strategies to deal with the tens of millions of tons of biomass and fuel loads on these Forest Service lands, we will not reduce the threats of catastrophic fire and the subsequent ecological sterilization of millions of acres of public land,” Babbott said during his testimony.

Babbott said the bill “recognizes that unless we deal with the reality that the majority of timber in Arizona’s forests have negative to no value, forest industry cannot play their pivotal role.”

Clearing denser parts of the forest prevents wildfires from getting out of hand -- one of the goals of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, of which Babbott is chairman.

But he said in his written testimony that effort has only been able to clear 14,000 acres of its goal of 300,000 acres, in part because of a lack of a market for the forest waste collected. By contrast, he said, loggers have cleared six times as much forest near Snowflake because there is a biomass generator there that can burn the wood to generate electricity.

“Biomass energy plays a significant role in the success rate of forest restoration in Arizona,” Babbott said, adding that it is the only viable option if the state hopes to reach its goal of clearing 30,000 to 50,000 acres per year.

The coalition said in its letter that there are better solutions than collecting, shipping and burning forest waste.

“The Senate should focus on legislation that will protect homes, livelihoods, and communities, rather than solutions that will only negatively impact the environment, animal habitat and not solve the wildland fire issue,” the letter said.

No one at the hearing testified against the measure, with Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French saying it has “great potential” as a renewable energy source, even though he said it needs a few technical changes before it is approved.

French also said the service supports another McSally bill heard Wednesday, one of about a dozen bills the subcommittee took up at the hearing.

The Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument Boundary Adjustment Act would transfer 97 acres from the Forest Service to the National Park Service, which would be able to operate on the land without first getting Forest Service approval. That would “remove a significant bureaucratic compliance burden” for both agencies, French said.

Babbott said that while some have argued details about the biomass bill, the subcommittee needs to look at the big picture and approve the measure to move the conversation forward.

“We must make progress on the biomass question if we are to make progress on reducing the threat of catastrophic fire in our communities,” Babbott said.

Coconino’s Pierson Watson (25) and a couple of teammates wrap up the Estrella Foothills quarterback Friday night during a 4A Conference state tournament semifinal game at Cromer Stadium.

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Marie Peoples to leave Coconino County
  • Updated

Deputy County Manager Marie Peoples has been named the new city manager for Webster Groves, Missouri, and will be leaving in January.

After seven years with Coconino County, Peoples, who is from Missouri, said she started seeking this type of managerial role early in the fall and is now looking forward to returning to her home state and closer to family.

“I’m really interested in being a manager in local government. My heart lies within local government and then, of course, getting closer back to home,” Peoples said.

She was also one of three finalists for the city manager of Evanston, Illinois, but the position was awarded to another candidate in mid-October.

Peoples started with Coconino County as its chief health officer in 2013 until she was appointed deputy county manager in 2018 to oversee its criminal justice and Health and Human Services departments. Before moving to Flagstaff, she held leadership roles in higher education and public health in Missouri.

More recently, she has served as Coconino County’s COVID-19 incident commander, but Peoples said she is not concerned about leaving this particular role mid-pandemic, noting the proficiency of the Emergency Operations Center and the Health and Human Services teams. She admitted, though, that she would miss the public health aspect of her role and the unique opportunity to help lead a community’s pandemic response.

“I have greatly enjoyed being a part of that team,” she said. “My background is as an epidemiologist, and working with the pandemic is such a unique offering for me that I didn’t think I would see within my lifetime. It is an epidemiologist’s dream, so I will miss it, but the team is going to do just fine.

“Coconino County has some of the most high-caliber and dedicated staff that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I can’t overemphasize that. It truly has been my pleasure. I am so proud of the work that has been done on the teams I’ve been able to work with.”

Peoples said she hopes to be able to connect with her county counterparts when she makes the move to Webster Groves in order to maintain her ties to public health.

For the last five years, Peoples has also served as a member of the Coconino Community College District Governing Board. She participated in her last meeting Wednesday evening.

“Regardless of the community I live in, I try to get involved in education and to be an active voice,” Peoples said, referring to CCC and her work on a K-12 school board before she moved to Arizona. “It’s been my honor, really, to be an elected member of CCC and to be entrusted with being able to do that. I will greatly miss being part of that.”

According to an article by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Peoples beat out 85 other candidates for the Webster Groves city manager role to replace Steve Wylie, who retired in July after 19 years in the position.

Peoples said her first day is Jan. 11.

Webster Groves has a population of just more than 20,000 over an area of 5 square miles, compared to Coconino County’s approximate 143,000 people over 18,661 square miles.

“I am leaving a community that has deeply become a part of me and my family, and I am going to miss it. It’s just been an honor to be able to be here,” Peoples said. “But I will say that Arizona is not done with me yet. I have no doubt that my path will continue to cross and I will be keeping an eye on Coconino County and I cannot wait to see what’s next.”

Coconino County officials are currently discussing the future of the position she is leaving open.