A member of medical staff holds a phial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine jab at Guy's Hospital at the start of the largest ever immunisation programme in the UK's history on December 8, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Victoria Jones - Pool / Getty Images)
A member of medical staff holds a phial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine jab at Guy's Hospital at the start of the largest ever immunisation programme in the UK's history on December 8, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Victoria Jones - Pool / Getty Images)

County health officials are encouraging that Arizonans get vaccinated to protect themselves and others. As of Friday, 50% of the state’s population had received at least one shot of the vaccine.

A more contagious variant of COVID-19 is spreading in Maricopa County, with at least one outbreak identified in a long-term care facility, according to the county’s public health department.

The Delta variant, which has become the dominant strain of the virus in the US and spread across India and parts of Europe, accounted for 20% of the county’s positive cases last month.

Enhanced infection control measures, including quarantining residents and repeated testing, were put in place at a long-term care facility where an outbreak of COVID-19 was identified, the county announced Friday.

Marcy Flanagan, executive director for the Department of Public Health, said the outbreak underscores how contagious the Delta variant is and how quickly it can be spread. According to epidemiologists with Yale Medicine, the Delta variant spreads at a rate 50% faster than the Alpha variant of the virus, which was 50% more contagious than the original strain of COVID-19.

County health officials said the best protection against COVID-19—including the Delta variant—is to get fully vaccinated.

As of Friday, just over 50% of the state’s population had gotten at least one shot of the vaccine, according to numbers from the Arizona Department of Health Services. In a statement, the county called attention to vulnerable members of the community, such as children under the age of 12 and people with depressed immune systems, who are unable to be vaccinated.

“We still have an opportunity to increase our community’s protection before the Delta variant becomes dominant locally,” said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, the county’s medical director for disease control.

Large Gatherings Still A Potential Risk for Unvaccinated

The announcement comes as the Phoenix Suns play in the NBA Finals—the first time the team has qualified since 1993— resulting in thousands of fans flocking to downtown Phoenix to watch the games, cheer on the team from local bars, and even greet them at the airport.

On Friday, Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport warned that fans should not gather at the airport to greet the team following their return from two away games they are set to play against the Milwaukee Bucks in Wisconsin later this week. Fans gathered at the airport to greet the team earlier this month after they clinched their Western Conference Finals win over the Clippers in Los Angeles.

“Fans should look for organized Suns events where they will have an opportunity to cheer on our home team,” the airport said in a statement on Twitter.

Large crowds could pose a concern, as the Delta variant is more contagious than other strains of COVID-19 and spreads from person to person more easily, especially in people who have not been fully vaccinated.

As of Friday, roughly 58% of adults in Maricopa County had received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the county’s medical epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Scott.

Vaccines Vital to Stopping Spread of COVID-19

The county is still recommending that individuals who aren’t vaccinated take precautions like social distancing and avoiding crowds, and Scott said that guidance should hold true regardless of whatever events might be happening in the county.

“The more people who can get vaccinated the better, and to do so as quickly as possible since we know that that more contagious variant is circulating in our community,” she said.

Vaccines are free of charge and widely available to everyone in the state, although the state no longer distributes vaccines through its large, state-run vaccination sites.

While the vaccine is highly effective against the Delta variant, individuals must receive both doses of their Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, to be considered fully vaccinated.

Vaccine efficacy against the Delta variant may be as low as 30% after only one dose,  according to the county.

“You have to get the full vaccine series to get the maximum protection,” Sunenshine said in a statement Friday. “The majority of people who get the Delta variant are not fully vaccinated.”To find a vaccine in Maricopa County, visit Maricopa.gov/COVID19VaccineLocations. Those without access to a computer or who need help finding a vaccine can call 602-506-6767 for assistance.