EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Richard Carmona, the 17th Surgeon General of the United States, is advising Governor Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Health Services on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The best leaders – presidents, governors, mayors, CEOs – surround themselves with people who will tell them the truth, even when it could be inconvenient. 

This thought is at the forefront of my mind as I approach the job Governor Doug Ducey has asked me to do: advise him and the Arizona Department of Health Services on emergency preparedness and lead our state’s effort in battling COVID-19. Over the past year and a half, the governor has consistently shown that he is looking for the right answers to the complex problems created by this powerful enemy. My assignment is to help him and Arizona find them.

I will always be honest with my public health advice, and I’m confident Governor Ducey will use his experience and judgment to make the best decisions he can. I will always be honest with my fellow Arizonans, as well. I didn’t pull my punches or sugarcoat my advice as Surgeon General, and I have no intention of doing so now.

First, I will tell you exactly what I told the Governor about my approach to COVID-19: This virus is more than a serious public health issue that poses a grave threat to countless lives. As long as it continues spreading, COVID-19 also is a threat to the economic health of our state and nation. Businesses large and small, an untold number of jobs, and the economic expansion that has always propelled Arizona and America forward are at risk. The public health argument for doing all we can to defeat COVID-19 is and must be the driving force in what we do. It is clear and compelling. Factor in the economic argument, and there should be no remaining doubt about what our marching orders should be. 

Getting where we need to be will require separating politics from public health. Public health makes recommendations, such as urging everyone to wear masks indoors while COVID-19 spread is substantial. We can’t let strident arguments about mandating or not mandating masks and vaccines distract from the real problem: Not enough of us have been vaccinated. A little more than half of our state and nation have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. We’ve made tremendous progress since the vaccine first became available. We’ve got to do more.

The fastest way to ensure we get COVID-19 out of circulation, support our businesses, relieve the strain on our healthcare system, and keep our children safely in school is by getting vaccinated. As a U.S. Army special forces medic in Vietnam, I learned that saving lives on a battlefield means acting quickly and decisively, and using what works to achieve the goal. My goal in the coming months is helping steer the community conversation clear of the distractions. We will stay focused on ensuring that every Arizonan has access to get vaccinated and knows the value of following mitigation strategies recommended by health departments and healthcare professionals. 

The challenge of public health is crafting appropriate messages to focus this community conversation on what’s really important. We need to convince Arizonans, some of whom are hesitant, of the value of getting vaccinated and making good health decisions when it comes to COVID-19. Research commissioned by ADHS has found that one message doesn’t fit all when it comes to reaching Arizona’s diverse populations, both in terms of demographics and ideologies. Understanding this diversity is important, including how people take in information and decide whether to act or not act based on it. We know some people are hesitant. Who are they? What are their reasons? Can they be persuaded? How? Community influencers – faith leaders, sports heroes, entertainment icons – will be important to getting the message out and accelerating herd immunity through vaccination. 

It’s not an easy job, but the current challenge facing public health and all of Arizona is convincing everyone that it is in their best interests and society’s best interests to get vaccinated. At the top of our to-do list is changing the narrative. We must help people understand that getting vaccinated means a thriving economy and more job opportunities, children learning safely at school and preparing themselves for successful futures, and enough hospital capacity so we all can get medical care when we need it. All of that is in addition to reinforcing that COVID-19 is now primarily a pandemic of the unvaccinated, with the risk of being hospitalized and dying more than 10 times greater among those who aren’t fully vaccinated.

When I was a child, every mom was afraid of their children getting the dreadful disease of polio and having to live in an iron lung. Vaccination freed us from that fear. It’s the same with measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough and tetanus. Almost all parents get these vaccines for their children because they don’t want them to get sick. 

Vaccines are probably the most significant human health advancement in the history of mankind. All of the diseases that are preventable with vaccination we hardly see in society anymore. As challenging as COVID-19 has been, it can and should be just another disease added to the list of diseases that are pushed aside through vaccination. COVID-19 won’t simply go away, but the quicker we can get Arizona to herd immunity the quicker the virus will have no place to go. That is our challenge in public health and one I am glad to be working on in partnership with Governor Ducey and the state of Arizona.