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Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones (55) sacks Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) and forces a fumble that the Cardinals recovered in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

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With redistricting ahead, county waits on census numbers

As an independent commission works on new maps for legislative and congressional districts across the state, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors will soon be starting the same process for county districts.

The work comes following last year’s once-a-decade census count, which is designed to provide updated and accurate population totals across the county.

The new maps will determine what areas make up each of the county’s five districts, each represented by one member of the Board of Supervisors. But because of the pandemic, the county is on an abbreviated timeline to draw those maps.

The new maps, which also apply to the governing board of Coconino Community College, need to be finalized and approved by December. But the county still hasn’t received the population counts, which are numbers it needs to draw up the maps.

The statewide independent commission only received the data it needed to begin the redistricting process from the census bureau last month.

County Manager Steve Peru told the board this week that those numbers should be delivered to the county by the end of September at the latest, although that information could be coming sooner.

The county may be waiting on more specific data, but initial numbers released by the census show Coconino County’s population grew by about 11,000 over the last decade, which equates to about 7.9% growth.

The population in 2010 was 134,421 while the population in 2020 was counted at 145,101.

Coconino County Recorder Patty Hansen said they also need to draw up initial precinct maps by October 1.

Unlike redistricting, precinct mapping occurs every year and is based on voter registration numbers, something the county already has without needing to wait on the Census Bureau.

Those precincts may be changed after October, but they act as the sort of puzzle pieces that county staff can use when drawing new district maps, when more local data is delivered.

“It is a little bit about building the puzzle and seeing how do we balance the population? And then how do we respect communities of interest?,” Peru said. “We look at the precincts more easily moved; building blocks to move from from one district to the other. We don't want to do a lot of precinct splitting, because that ends up in some cases confusing the voter in terms of what precinct by vote at so that why we want to be really mindful.”

Peru said once the county receives that data from the census, which will include not only new population totals for specific areas of the county but also information on the age and ethnicity of populations, county staff will get to work drawing up a variety of maps before taking them to the board for review.

Although it may depend on when the county receives that information, Peru said they hope to have new maps ready to be reviewed before the end of the month. A meeting to discuss the issue is scheduled for September 28.

“We'll then take those scenarios out to the public during the month of October, possibly a little into November to get feedback on what those scenarios are from the general public,” Peru said.

That is also when they will be doing outreach to stakeholder groups who may want to weigh in on the new maps, Peru said.

Peru said staff are currently working to identify some of those stakeholder groups and communities of interest.

Each of the 5 districts should contain about a fifth of the total population, but Peru said in his experience, the county tends to growth spread somewhat unevenly across the county.

Areas around Flagstaff tend to see significantly more growth than other more rural parts of the county, and at times, some areas have seen their total population drop.

And that can make drawing new districts that all contain similarly sized populations somewhat more difficult.

To ensure residents have a similar level of representation, districts are supposed to have no more than a 10% difference in population from one another, and no more than a 5% difference in population than the ideal number, Hansen said.

“Historically what we have seen in the county is district one, and district three tend to exceed the max. What we have also seen is that district 2 tends to be within the range and then districts four and five tend to be under the minimum,”

All the while, other factors must also be taken into account such as preserving communities of interest within the same district. Those can include everything from chapters on the Navajo Nation, cities and towns, fire districts and school districts.

Finally, Peru said they will work to preserve districts that give representation to minority voices.

“So in our case, in district five, which is the northeastern part of the county where Page is located, the majority minority population there is our indigenous population,” Peru said.

Peru said district four has the county’s second highest indigenous population while there is a significant Hispanic population in district two. Ensuring those populations have good representation on the board, and have the opportunity to elect their candidates to county government, is an important consideration, Peru said.

Meadows surrounding the San Francisco Peaks are filled with the last stand for flowers following an active monsoon season. The monsoon ends on Sept. 15, and while September has been relatively tame, Flagstaff has still received several more inches of precipitation than normal this year.

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Biden issues major disaster declaration for northern Arizona flash flooding
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President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration Monday after monsoon rains caused a series of flash floods across areas of northern Arizona this summer.

The declaration comes after a bipartisan group of Arizona leaders sent a letter to the Biden administration asking for federal assistance last week.

“The intensity of this monsoon season and anticipated future storms in the region have severely affected communities, with streets where children once played transformed into storm channels by concrete barriers and sandbags. Without federal support, these communities will be unable to recover,” read the letter, signed by both Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly and eight members of Arizona’s Congressional delegation.

That included Rep. Tom O’Halleran, who toured areas of east Flagstaff that have been impacted by flooding and spoke with residents on Saturday.

The declaration should open the door to federal funding being made available to the state as well as local and tribal governments, and certain non-profit groups, within Coconino, Navajo and Apache counties that experienced flooding from July 22 to July 24, according to a media release.

With the declaration, emergency work responding to and repairing damage from the floods may now see some federal reimbursement coming from FEMA.

Federal funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures statewide, according to the Biden administration.

Areas of Flagstaff and Coconino County have seen several extreme flash floods throughout this summer, both on and off of the 2019 Museum Fire burn scar. Several of those flash floods came as a result of storms that were at one time considered once-in-a-generation phenomena.

It is unclear whether federal aid might be able to apply to local floods outside of the July 22-24 time range.

FEMA officials did not respond to questions prior to publication. 

Experts: Shots working
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The average person doesn't need a COVID-19 booster yet, an international group of scientists — including two top U.S. regulators — wrote Monday in a scientific journal.

The experts reviewed studies of the vaccines' performance and concluded the shots are working well despite the extra-contagious delta variant, especially against severe disease.

"Even in populations with fairly high vaccination rates, the unvaccinated are still the major drivers of transmission" at this stage of the pandemic, they concluded.

The opinion piece, published in The Lancet, illustrates the intense scientific debate about who needs booster doses and when, a decision the U.S. and other countries are grappling with.

After revelations of political meddling in the Trump administration's coronavirus response, President Joe Biden promised to "follow the science." But the review raises the question of whether his administration is moving faster than the experts.

The authors include two leading vaccine reviewers at the Food and Drug Administration, Drs. Phil Krause and Marion Gruber, who recently announced they will step down this fall. Among the other 16 authors are leading vaccine researchers in the U.S., Britain, France, South Africa and India, plus scientists with the World Health Organization, which already urged a moratorium on boosters until poor countries are better vaccinated.

In the U.S., the White House has begun planning for boosters this month, if both the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree. Advisers to the FDA will weigh evidence about an extra Pfizer shot Friday at a key public meeting.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Monday urged the Food and Drug Administration to quickly authorize booster shots for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine as well as permit children ages 5 to 11 to be vaccinated.

Polis said that foot-dragging by U.S. health officials has cost lives. “The FDA needs to get out of their ivory tower and realize there is a real life pandemic,” he said.

Georgetown University's Larry Gostin said the paper "throws gasoline on the fire" in the debate about whether most Americans truly need boosters and whether the White House got ahead of scientists.

"It's always a fundamental error of process to make a scientific announcement before the public health agencies have acted and that's exactly what happened here," said Gostin, a lawyer and public health specialist.

The U.S. already offers an extra dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to people with severely weakened immune systems.

For the general population, the debate is boiling down to whether boosters should be given even though the vaccines are still offering high protection against severe disease — possibly in hopes of blocking milder "breakthrough" infections among the fully vaccinated.

Last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said new data showed that as delta surged, the unvaccinated were 4.5 times more likely than the fully vaccinated to get infected, over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die. Still, government scientists are also weighing hints that protection is waning among older adults who were vaccinated early last winter.

The writers of Monday's commentary reported reviewing worldwide studies since delta began surging, mostly of U.S. and European vaccines. The team concluded "none of these studies has provided credible evidence of substantially declining protection against severe disease."

Because the body builds layers of immunity, gradual drops in antibody levels don't necessarily mean overall effectiveness is dropping "and reductions in vaccine efficacy against mild disease do not necessarily predict reductions in the (typically higher) efficacy against severe disease," they wrote.

The more the virus spreads, the more opportunity it has to evolve into strains that could escape current vaccines. The Lancet reviewers suggest there could be bigger gains from creating booster doses that better match circulating variants, much like flu vaccine is regularly updated, than from just giving extra doses of the original vaccine.

"There is an opportunity now to study variant-based boosters before there is widespread need for them," the scientists wrote.

In other developments:

  • Federal Judge Robert Pratt on Monday ordered the state of Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Pratt said the law passed in May substantially increases the risk of several children with health conditions of contracting COVID-19.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened local governments Monday with $5,000 fines per violation for requiring their employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus that has overrun hospitals across the state. DeSantis said local municipalities potentially face millions of dollars in fines for implementing a requirement that their employees get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Out West, Biden points to wildfires to push for big rebuild
  • Updated

MATHER, Calif. — President Joe Biden on Monday pointed to wildfires burning through the West to argue for his $3.5 trillion rebuilding plans, calling year-round fires and other extreme weather a climate change reality the nation can no longer ignore.

“Even some of my less believing friends are all of a sudden having an altar call,” Biden said of those who have sought to minimize the risks posed by climate change. “They're seeing the Lord.”

The president spoke during a briefing from officials in California's emergency services office. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who faces a recall vote Tuesday and was set to appear with Biden later Monday in Long Beach, participated. Biden was also setting out on an aerial tour of fire damage.

Newsom said the emergency center had become his office because fire season has “just kept going," as he amplified points Biden made in California and at an earlier stop in Idaho.

“This has been a hard year and a half,” Newsom said.

In Boise, Idaho, earlier Monday, Biden sought to boost support for his big rebuilding plans, saying every dollar spent on “resilience” would save $6 in future costs. And he said the rebuilding must go beyond simply restoring damaged systems and instead ensure communities can withstand catastrophic weather that doesn’t strike based on partisan ideology.

“It’s not a Democrat thing. It’s not a Republican thing. It’s a weather thing," he said. "It’s a reality. It’s serious and we can do this.”

The president's two-day Western swing comes at a critical juncture for a central plank of his legislative agenda. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working to assemble details of the infrastructure-plus plan — and how to pay for it, a concern not just for Republicans. A key Democratic senator said Sunday that he will not vote for a package so large.

The president issued his plea about climate change during a briefing at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which coordinates the government's wildfire response.

He noted that wildfires start earlier every year and that this year they have scorched 5.4 million acres. “That's larger than the entire state of New Jersey,” Biden said.

“The reality is we have a global warming problem, a serious global warming problem, and it's consequential, and what's going to happen is, things are not going to go back," he said.

With stops in Idaho, California and Denver through Tuesday, Biden aims to link the increasing frequency of wildfires, drought, floods and other extreme weather events to what he and scientists say is a need to invest billions in combating climate change, along with vastly expanding the nation's social safety net.

The president argued for spending now to make the future effects of climate change less costly, as he did during recent stops in Louisiana, New York and New Jersey — all states that suffered millions of dollars in flood and other damage and scores of deaths after Hurricane Ida.

Biden also praised firefighters for the life-threatening risks they take, and discussed the administration's recent use of a wartime law to boost supplies of firehoses from the U.S. Forest Service's primary supplier, an Oklahoma City nonprofit call NewView Oklahoma.

In deep-red Idaho, several opposing groups leveraged Biden’s visit as a way to show resistance to his administration. GOP gubernatorial candidates, an anti-vaccine organization and a far-right group were among those urging people to turn out against the president.

More than 1,000 protesters did so, gathering in Boise before Biden arrived to express displeasure with his coronavirus plan, the election and other issues.

Chris Burns, a 62-year-old from Boise, said, “I’m against everything Biden is for.” Burns was especially displeased with a sweeping new vaccine mandate for 100 million people that Biden announced last week. “He’s acting like a dictator,” Burns said.

Biden is on his first trip to the west in office, a visit primarily aimed at drumming up support for the $3.5 trillion spending plan.

From Boise, the president flew to California to survey wildfire damage and speak more broadly about the federal response. Newsom greeted him at the airport.

Biden also planned to promote his economic agenda in Denver on Tuesday.

The White House is trying to turn the corner after a difficult month dominated by a chaotic and violent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the surging delta COVID-19 variant that have upended what the president had hoped would mark a summer in which the nation was finally freed from the coronavirus.

Biden acknowledged over that his polling numbers have dipped in recent weeks, but argued his agenda is “overwhelmingly popular” with the public. He said he expects his Republican opponents to attack him instead of debating him on the merits of his spending plan.

Besides the Republican opposition in Congress, Biden needs to overcome the skepticism of two key centrist Democrats in the closely divided Senate. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have expressed concerns about the size of the $3.5 trillion spending package.

Manchin said Sunday, “I cannot support $3.5 trillion,” citing in particular his opposition to a proposed increase in the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% and vast new social spending envisioned by the president. Manchin also complained about a process he said feels rushed.

The 100-member Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Given solid GOP opposition, Biden's plan would fail to clear the Senate without Manchin and Sinema's support.

The climate provisions in Biden’s plans include tax incentives for clean energy and electric vehicles, investments to transition the economy away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources such as wind and solar power, and creation of a civilian climate corps.

The stop in Idaho, a state Biden lost by more than 30 percentage points last year, offered Biden a deep-red backdrop to argue that climate investments should be a priority across party lines. Idaho and California have seen wildfire season turn into a year-round scourge.

The Biden administration in June laid out a strategy to deal with the growing wildfire threat, which included hiring more federal firefighters and implementing new technologies to detect and address fires quickly. Last month, the president approved a disaster declaration for California, providing federal aid for the counties affected by the Dixie and River fires. He issued another disaster declaration for the state just before Monday's visit aimed at areas affected by the Caldor Fire.