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The Graham County Health Department announced Thursday morning the death of a San Carlos Apache tribal member.

The victim was in the 55-64 age range and brings to 67 the total number of county residents to die while battling COVID-19.

In related news, Graham County’s COVID-19 numbers are looking better and the mask mandate expired Friday, but health officials are still urging caution.

The numbers are definitely going in the right direction, but it’s too soon to declare victory, said Brian Douglas, Graham County Health Department director.

He is convinced the county’s numbers are on the decrease because of the masks.

“Even with the mask regulation expiring I would encourage people to wear them because COVID-19 is still a risk and although we’ve begun vaccinating people, it’s still going to take some time to offer vaccines to all of those who would like it,” Douglas said.

Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center CEO Roland Knox agreed.

“Even though the mandate is gone, I hope people continue to cooperate because I believe it has helped,” Knox said. “The surge would have been higher without it.”

Lately, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has averaged about 10, Knox said. A few weeks ago, that number was 18.

His staff continues to “hold strong” with the help of eight nurses brought in by the state, Knox said.

So far, 2,600 Graham County residents have received the vaccine, including 200 first-responders, seniors 75-plus and educators who have received their second doses, Douglas said.

The county is currently ranked 12th out of the state’s 15 counties in terms of the vaccination rate, but Douglas said the numbers will soon improve.

The county had been stockpiling the vaccine to use for second doses, but is no longer doing so, he said. Those doses are now being used as first doses.

Last week the county started inoculating seniors 65-plus and because they constitute such a large group, Douglas said it will probably take another two weeks to finish up with them.

Although there have been no severe adverse reactions to the vaccination, Douglas said 40-50% of eligible residents are still declining to get the shot.

“I would strong encourage everyone who is eligible to receive the vaccination to get it,” he said.

Just like with the masks, it will take awhile to see the impact the vaccine will have on the spread of the virus, Douglas said.

He anticipates seeing a large impact by April 1, Douglas said.

Last week, the county held a testing blitz and he found it encouraging only 54 felt the need to be tested, Douglas said. In December, 400 people showed up for a county blitz.

Those who feel the need to be tested should contact Embry Health at TestNow.com to schedule a free test, he said.

By doing so, it will free up health department employees and allow them to focus on vaccinations, he said.

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