First lady urges COVID vaccinations as delta variant surfaces in Arizona

(Video by Julia Sandor/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – First Lady Jill Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff visited a vaccination clinic at Isaac Middle School on Wednesday to stress the importance of community protection from COVID-19.

“Your lives and your health matter to the president, to the vice president, to Doug and to me,” Biden said. “I’m here to ask all the viewers on these TV stations to please make the choice to get vaccinated, because it’s safe.”

Their visit comes as health officials announced 3.1 million Arizonans are fully vaccinated and 3.5 million have received at least one dose. Experts also said wider vaccinations could hold a new threat, the delta variant, at bay.

“The future is getting brighter and brighter,” Emhoff said. “This effort does not end with the end of this bus tour. This effort will keep going, and we promise you that we are going to continue getting the word out, especially here in Arizona.”

(Audio by Jalpan Nanavati/Cronkite News)

Phoenix was their last stop on the National Month of Action bus tour for COVID-19 vaccinations.

With nearly half the state’s eligible population receiving at least one dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, Arizona health experts are keeping their eye on delta, the latest strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“I don’t want to set off any panic here because I think we’re still doing well, but it’s not gone,” said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute. “The virus is still around, people are still getting infected and 500 people are in the hospital today because of it.”

Almost 895,000 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19, and nearly 18,000 have died, according to the state health department.

Delta, first discovered in India, is known to be more transmissible than previous COVID-19 variants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects delta to become the dominant strain in the U.S. soon.

First Lady Jill Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff visit a vaccination site at Isaac Middle School in Phoenix on June 30. (Photo by Julia Sandor/Cronkite News)

“If delta were to gain a foothold here (in Arizona), my suspicion is that it would become the dominant strain within the next two to three weeks,” LaBaer said. “In counties with lower vaccination rates, it will definitely be a serious concern.”

Apache, Graham and Navajo counties have the lowest vaccination rates in the state, with 16.9%, 27.3% and 29.5% of their respective populations vaccinated.

At his news briefing, LaBaer also said the number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona is “much worse” than those in Massachusetts, New York and California.

“We could certainly do better than 500 (new) cases a day,” he said. “We can take some solace that we are not as bad as Florida or southern Missouri. The combination of the delta variant and a very low vaccination rate is overwhelming the medical system in southern Missouri.”

LaBaer stressed that surviving COVID-19 may not provide the same level of protection as a vaccine does.

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“There is some suggestion, looking at the serology data, that the immune response to the vaccine is much stronger than the immune response to the natural infection,” he said.

LaBaer said improving vaccination rates can ensure the delta variant does not gain a foothold in the state.

“The punchline on all the variants right now is that the vaccine protects against all of them, including delta. For me, the big take-home is: get vaccinated. That, by far, is the best thing you can do to protect yourself against all the variants.”

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego also spoke about the delta variant alongside Biden and Ehmoff at Isaac school.

“Even if you think you may have immunity, we still hope that you will get that vaccine,” she said. “It makes sense particularly with the delta variant, which is here in Arizona, and we want to do what we can to put a stop to it right now.”

Rithwik Kalale rith-wick kuh-lah-lay (he/him)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Rithwik Kalale expects to graduate in August 2023 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Kalale has reported in audio and digital formats for Real Vision, KJZZ, TARO Magazine and Arizona PBS.

Jalpan Nanavati jul-puhn nah-nah-vuh-tee (he/him/his)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Jalpan Nanavati is an undergraduate student from India majoring in journalism and mass communications with a minor in film and media production. He was a journalist for Cronkite News in summer 2020, and he’s returning as a broadcast reporter in summer 2021. He has produced and directed short films and a full-length documentary.