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The Graham County Health Department has distributed roughly half of its initial batch of 600 COVID-19 vaccines.

Graham County Health Department Director Brian Douglas said some of the doses were given to Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center for dissemination amongst its staff, but the health department has been administering doses to other health care and long-term care workers personally. Long-term care residents have also been getting the vaccine.

“We’ll be ordering our second shipment in the next couple of weeks and it will only take a couple of days to arrive,” Douglas said.

By that time, Douglas said he suspects the health department will be ready to start vaccinating the next in line for the shot under U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines — law enforcement officers, teachers and school staff members and “essential” workers like those who work for oil, gas, electric and water utility companies.

On Tuesday, the county announced the deaths of two more residents with COVID-19, bringing the total number of virus-related deaths to 50.

According to the Graham County Health Department, one of the patients was in the 55-64 age range and the other was 65 or older. One of the patients was from Safford, the other from Thatcher.

As of Wednesday morning, 990 Graham County residents were battling the virus, including 307 who were diagnosed Dec. 23-Dec. 30. The number of people who have recovered from the illness stood at 2,140 as of Wednesday.

Mask mandate

Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center remains at or near capacity and Douglas said he still fears an onslaught of new cases in the next two weeks due to large family Christmas gatherings.

Because the numbers continue to rise, Douglas said he has asked the Graham County Board of Supervisors to extend the mask regulation that went into effect Nov. 26 for another six weeks. It’s due to expire Tuesday. The board is scheduled to meet Monday morning.

“I do feel our numbers would be increasing substantially more without the mask regulation,” Douglas said.

The county has received several complaints from people complaining about business employees not wearing their masks, he said.

“We have contacted them and educated them on the mask regulation,” Douglas said. “Some have expressed surprise that they’ve got employees not wearing them.”

Federal prison system

The number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise community-wide and within the federal prison system.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, 296 prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institute in Safford are still battling COVID-19 as of Tuesday. Eighty-five of those patients have caught the virus within the last week. Fourteen staff members currently have the virus, up from 13 the week prior.

According to the BOP, just under 7,100 federal inmates and 1,700 staff members have caught COVID-19 nationwide. There have been 179 federal inmate deaths and two staff member deaths attributed to the virus.

A request for an interview with a warden at FCI-Safford resulted in a 4,200-word email reply outlining the government’s response to the pandemic and referrals to various links.

The BOP states the agency began planning for the pandemic with the help of the CDC and other agencies six weeks before the pandemic was declared and issued guidance on March 23 with an update in July.

The agency is directing everyone interested in their plan and statistics to visit https://www.bop.gov/coronavirus/index.jsp.

“To ensure all of our facilities are in compliance with CDC and BOP guidance and directives related to the management of COVID-19 and the mitigation of disease transmission, COVID-19 Compliance Review Teams were established in August 2020,” the email said.

According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, 18 prisoners at the state prison in Safford have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 13 have recovered.

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