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A hot-air balloon finishing up a tour of Sedona prepares to land in the scrub-brush next to the Cornville Non-Motorized Trails, a pleasant, solitary jaunt when not serving as a landing spot. 

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Flagstaff Family Care Clinic vaccinates remaining senior patients
  • Updated

As one of Coconino County’s COVID-19 vaccine partner sites, Apricus Health Flagstaff Family Care Clinic has taken the phased priority groups to its own extreme.

Starting in late January, when it received its first 100 doses from the county, the clinic determined it would offer its allocation of the vaccine to its own patients—and only those age 75 and older.

“These are the people that are going to end up in the hospitals, taking up our hospital beds and using up all our resources,” said Practice Administrator Cindy Wade of the decision to offer vaccines to this group first. “These are the same people who are more likely to die from contracting the disease. Their death rate is much higher. That’s an entire generation. We can’t have that.”

Wade explained that the practice is allowed to choose specific groups to vaccinate, as long as they do not extend beyond the current state guidelines, so once appointments had been offered to the majority of its eldest patients, the practice then opened up vaccinations to patients age 65 and older, similar to Coconino County.

And so far, this prioritization of the clinic’s most vulnerable patients has worked.

As of Thursday, just days after a practice-wide phone call went out about appointment availability, the clinic was able to offer and provide vaccinations to every interested and unvaccinated member of its 65 and older patient population — of a group of 3,330 total people, 1,000 of which are over age 75.

“A lot of people went to Fort Tuthill and the Elks Lodge, but a lot of people waited for us because they wanted their primary care to do it,” said Blaire Johnson, the practice’s front office supervisor, who has been helping to schedule vaccination appointments. “So when we were finally able to start scheduling, the amount of appreciation that everyone had was astonishing. It’s really heartwarming to hear their reactions.”

Johnson said of all the eligible patients she notified about getting vaccinated at Flagstaff Family Care, only about five declined because they did not want the vaccine. Others declined because they had scheduled appointments elsewhere, though Johnson noted that some who had made appointments at the state vaccination site in Glendale canceled in favor of the local clinic.

Wade estimated that the practice has administered first doses to 750 of its patients directly. Second doses will begin this week.

“Probably 95% of our 65 and olders are vaccinated right now, whether they got it from us or elsewhere,” Wade said. “We would have kept doing it until they were done.”

Vaccinations have been occurring at the clinic’s Fourth Street location, where 10 parking spots are designated for drive-up vaccinations, allowing the practice to administer up to 250 doses a week.

Mary Lockhart and her husband, George, drove in from Williams on Thursday afternoon for their vaccine appointment.

“I have Dr. [Michelle] Doroz here, so that’s why I came,” Mary said, admitting that at first, she was hesitant to get the vaccine. “But now I feel like I’ll be safer. I want to get it while I can. I’ve been with medical staff here for 10 years and I trust them completely.”

Now that the clinic’s 65 and older group is complete, vaccinations have expanded to its high-risk patients, such as diabetics and those with heart failure, and to the people who live with them. Following this group, if the clinic is allocated additional vaccines from the county, Wade said it will open to the essential workers in the Phase 1b category.

Because of the speed at which the clinic was able to get through its vulnerable patients, she said she would recommend that other practices consider a similar prioritization within those they plan to vaccinate.

“You’ve got to set goals. When you’re just willy-nilly all over, there are people that are getting missed,” Wade said. “Our belief is that primary care takes care of their patients and this is part of it. We do MMRs for measles, we do chicken pox, we do children’s vaccines, why would we not be responsible for our adult vaccines, as well?”

As of Monday, 44,002 total COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Coconino County and 11,314 people are now fully vaccinated with at least one dose, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The county had to cancel its Monday and Tuesday first-dose appointments because of delays in receiving shipments, but so far, Wednesday's appointments have not been called off.

US tops 500,000 virus deaths
  • Updated

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. topped 500,000 Monday, a staggering number that all but matches the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.

The U.S. recorded an estimated 405,000 deaths in World War II, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War.

President Joe Biden held a sunset moment of silence and a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House and ordered American flags lowered at federal buildings for the next five days.

“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Biden said. "We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur.”

Monday’s grim milestone, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, comes as states redouble efforts to get the coronavirus vaccine into arms after last week’s winter weather closed clinics, slowed vaccine deliveries and forced tens of thousands of people to miss their shots.

Despite the rollout of vaccines since mid-December, a closely watched model from the University of Washington projects more than 589,000 dead by June 1.

The U.S. toll is by far the highest reported in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths globally, though the true numbers are thought to be significantly higher, in part because many cases were overlooked, especially early in the outbreak.

The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. were in early February 2020. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 deaths. The toll hit 200,000 in September and 300,000 in December, then took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and another month to climb from 400,000 to 500,000.

Average daily deaths and cases have plummeted in the past few weeks. Virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

But experts warn that dangerous variants could cause the trend to reverse itself. And some experts say not enough Americans have been inoculated yet for the vaccine to be making much of a difference.

Instead, the drop-off in deaths and cases has been attributed to the passing of the holidays; the cold and bleak days of midwinter, when many people stay home; and better adherence to mask rules and social distancing.

Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Lexington, Kentucky, who has treated scores of COVID-19 patients, said he never thought the U.S. deaths would be so high.

“I was one of those early ones that thought this may be something that may hit us for a couple months … I definitely thought we would be done with it before we got into the fall. And I definitely didn’t see it heading off into 2021,” Stanton said.

Kristy Sourk, an intensive-care nurse at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, said she is encouraged by the declining caseload and progress in vaccinating people, but “I know we are so far from over.”

People "are still dying, and families are still isolated from their loved ones who are unable to be with them so that is still pretty heart-wrenching,” she said.

Snow, ice and weather-related power outages closed some vaccination sites and held up shipments across a large swath of the nation, including in the Deep South.

As a result, the seven-day rolling average of administered first doses fell by 20 percent between Feb. 14 and Feb. 21, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The White House said that about a third of the roughly 6 million vaccine doses delayed by bad weather were delivered over the weekend, with the rest expected to be delivered by mid-week, several days earlier than originally expected. White House coronavirus response coordinator Andy Slavitt on Monday attributed the improved timeline to an “all-out, round-the-clock” effort over the weekend that included employees at one vaccine distributor working night shifts to pack vaccines.

In Louisiana, state health officials said some doses from last week’s shipments were delivered over the weekend and were expected to continue arriving through Wednesday. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week’s supply arrived Monday. And in Nashville, Tennessee, health officials were able to vaccinate more than 2,300 senior citizens and teachers over the weekend after days of treacherous weather.

“We’ll be asking the vaccine providers to do a lot,” said Louisiana’s top public health adviser, Dr. Joe Kanter, who expects it to take a week or two to catch up on vaccinations after a storm coated roads with ice and left many areas without running water.

Some hospitals, clinics, community sites and pharmacies that are in Louisiana’s vaccination network will get double allocations of doses this week — just as Gov. John Bel Edwards starts offering shots to teachers, daycare workers, pregnant women and people age 55 to 64 with certain preexisting conditions.

New York City officials expected to catch up on vaccinations after being forced to delay scheduling tens of thousands of appointments last week, the mayor said Monday.

“That means we’ve basically lost a full week in our vaccination efforts,” DeBlasio said.

More than 44 million Americans have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and about 1.6 million per day received either first or second dose over the past seven days, according to the CDC.

The nation's supply could expand significantly if health regulators approve a single-shot COVID-19 vaccine developed by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

The company said it will be able to provide 20 million U.S. doses by the end of March if it gets the green light, and would have capacity to provide 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by the end of June.

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As Lowell Observatory looks to the future, some worry the public won't have a say
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About 600 acres of land just west of Lowell Observatory has become the center of discussion as Lowell considers future expansions of its campus and development on the mesa.

Officials with Lowell Observatory are seeking an act of Congress that would allow them to better use the area, potentially working with other community partners to develop parts of the property.

But some worry that as Lowell moves forward, the public and Flagstaff residents won’t have a say in the future of Observatory Mesa.

Called Section 17, the area was granted to Percival Lowell in 1910 by the United States Congress, but it came with some restrictions. Namely, the Forest Service reserved the right to log the area, and the land would revert to federal control if either the observatory closed or it was used for anything other than an “observatory purpose.”

But as observatory officials look to the future, Lowell Director Jeff Hall said it is unclear what is considered an “observatory purpose” and they are seeking congressional clarification in the form of a new bill.

During a Flagstaff City Council meeting on the subject earlier this month, Hall said several potential projects have been floated for the area, including an outdoor globe-style theater for the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival or a new facility to house the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Flagstaff, also known as TGen.

Additionally, it is also possible that the City of Flagstaff could purchase the land if they want it to remain undeveloped. The city already owns more than 2,000 acres on Observatory Mesa that has been set aside as permanent open space.

The property is zoned for rural residential uses but has long been utilized by Flagstaff residents as if it were open space.

During that council meeting, Bob Holmes, who is lobbying on behalf of the observatory in Washington, emphasized the rights Lowell Observatory has to the land.

“[It’s a] misconception that it is open space, it is private land owned by Lowell with federal encumbrances,” Holmes said.

Hall said the observatory is committed to a public process in which Flagstaff residents will be able to weigh in as the observatory creates a master plan for future projects on the mesa.

“We do want it to be a community process. We try to be part of the community and we certainly don't want to be doing anything in a smoke-filled room,” Hall told the Arizona Daily Sun.

Such a master plan may take some time to create with the involvement of community partners, so Hall said it will be years before any shovels hit the dirt.

Still, Hall said they are hoping a bill can pass this year, and Senator Mark Kelly’s recent appointment to the Senate’s natural resources committee may help make that a reality. But he said exactly what that bill might say is unclear and that has raised questions for some in Flagstaff over how much influence the public will really have.

Alicyn Gitlin with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter said she thinks passing a bill before the development of a master plan sounds like putting the cart before the horse. A master plan would help determine what language the bill should contain, she said.

Gitlin said she worries the language in a bill passed this year would be vague by necessity, which could open the mesa to unpopular kinds of development.

Officials with the observatory have been working with Rep. Tom O’Halleran on the issue for several years. And, although they did not pass, two bills have been introduced in the past.

Those efforts have been conducted largely outside the public’s view, Gitlin said, and the past versions of the bills would have simply eliminated any restrictions on the land.

Nonetheless, those earlier bills did receive some support from past Flagstaff leaders: Former mayor Coral Evans and former city manager Barbara Goodrich both wrote letters from the city in support of the proposed bills.

And Hall acknowledged that it may be difficult to write a bill that defines “observatory purpose” without going through the master planning process.

“Probably, you know, we don't really end up capturing the definition of ‘observatory purpose’ in the bill. It’s probably hasty and short-sighted to try to do that. That definition comes out of the master planning process,” Hall said.

And W. Lowell Putnam, the great-grandnephew of Percival Lowell and the current sole trustee of the observatory, told the council earlier this month the observatory would not want a development that is directly contrary to the mission of the organization, such as keeping dark skies nearby.

“The idea that we're going to go and do some kind of rampant development is just not going to play,” Putnam said.

Gitlin also emphasized that the current federal restrictions on the property mean the public needs to have a say in what happens.

“I think it's really important that they realize that this land, if it's not used for observatory purposes right now, it is supposed to revert back to being public, and therefore the public has a stake. So the public should be allowed to decide if they want to give up that right to reclaim that land if it is not used for observatory purposes,” Gitlin said.

During the meeting earlier this month, the idea was floated that the city council could host the master planning process as a third party without a stake in the outcome.

Hall said he believes one way forward is for the observatory to work with the city in a public-private partnership.

The discussion of Section 17 comes as the observatory is already well on the way toward developing its new $37 million discovery center. That project is adjacent to Section 17, closer to the current observatory campus, and is meant to accommodate growing visitation, Hall said.

Hall said they plan to break ground on that project soon, already having raised $28 million toward the development, and have the new center open sometime in 2023.

Updated for correction at 11:03 a.m. on Feb. 23. 

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Interior nominee Haaland vows 'balance' on energy, climate

WASHINGTON — Oil and natural gas will continue to play a major role in America for years to come, even as the Biden administration seeks to conserve public lands and address climate change, President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Interior Department pledges.

Deb Haaland, a New Mexico congresswoman named to lead the Interior Department, said she is committed to “strike the right balance” as the agency manages energy development and seeks to restore and protect the nation's sprawling federal lands.

Biden's agenda, including the possible creation of a Civilian Climate Corps, “demonstrates that America’s public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production" and “has the potential to spur job creation," Haaland said in testimony prepared for her confirmation hearing Tuesday. Haaland's remarks are intended to rebut criticism from some Republicans who have complained that her opposition to drilling on federal lands will cost thousands of jobs and harm economies throughout the West.

Haaland, 60, would be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency. The Laguna Pueblo member and two-term congresswoman often draws on her experience as a single mother and the teachings of her ancestors as a reminder that action the U.S. takes on climate change, the environment and sacred sites will affect generations to come.

Native Americans see Haaland’s nomination as the best chance to move from consultation on tribal issues to consent and to put more land into the hands of tribal nations either outright or through stewardship agreements. The Interior Department has broad oversight of tribal affairs and energy development.

“The historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say that it is not about me,'' Haaland said in her prepared testimony. ”Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans — moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us.''

As the daughter of a Pueblo woman, Haaland says she learned early to value hard work. Her mother is a Navy veteran and worked for a quarter-century at the Bureau of Indian Education, an Interior Department agency. Her father was a Marine who served in Vietnam. He received the Silver Star and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“As a military family, we moved every few years when I was a kid, but no matter where we lived, my dad taught me and my siblings to appreciate nature, whether on a mountain trail or walking along the beach,'' Haaland said.

The future congresswoman spent summers with her grandparents in Mesita, a Laguna Pueblo village. “It was in the cornfields with my grandfather where I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources and where I gained a deep respect for the Earth,'' she said.

Haaland pledged to lead the Interior Department with honor and integrity and said she will be “a fierce advocate for our public lands.”

She promised to listen to and work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and ensure that the Interior Department's decisions are based on science. She also vowed to “honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and recognize their part in America’s story.''

She said she fully understands the role the Interior Department must play in Biden's “build back better” plan for infrastructure and clean energy and said she will seek to protect natural resources for future generations “so that we can continue to work, live, hunt, fish, and pray among them.''

Haaland's nomination has stirred strong opposition from some Republicans who say her “radical ideas” don’t fit in with a rural way of life, particularly in the West. They cite her support for the Green New Deal and Biden’s recent moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands — which doesn’t apply to tribal lands — and her opposition to fracking and the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said Haaland will have to convince him she's willing to break from what he called her “radical views” as a lawmaker, including opposition to the oil industry and to the lifting of federal protections for grizzly bears.

“Her record speaks for itself. She’s a die-hard, far-left ideologue,” Daines said in an interview.

Some Native American advocates called the description of Haaland as “radical” a loaded reference to her tribal status.

“That kind of language is sort of a dog whistle for certain folks that see somebody who is an Indigenous woman potentially being in a position of power,” said Ta’jin Perez with the group Western Native Voice. “Folks to some degree are afraid of change.”

Daines called the notion of racial overtones in his remarks outrageous.

He is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will consider Haaland's nomination at a hearing Tuesday. The panel's chair, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has not said how he will vote on Haaland's nomination, which Democrats generally support. Manchin, a moderate, said he plans to oppose Biden's choice for budget director, Neera Tanden, a crucial defection that could sink her nomination in the evenly divided Senate.

National civil rights groups have joined forces with tribal leaders and environmental groups in supporting Haaland. A joint statement by the NAACP, UnidosUS and Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum praised her nomination as “historic” and called Haaland “a proven civil rights/racial justice advocate.”

A letter signed by nearly 500 national and regional organizations representing Native Americans, environmental justice groups and outdoor businesses called Haaland “a proven leader and the right person to lead the charge against the existential threats of our time: tackling the climate, biodiversity, extinction and COVID-19 crises and racial justice inequities on our federal public lands and waters.”