Like many of you, I remain concerned about how the extraordinarily contagious Omicron variant may affect our healthcare system. Arizona’s hospitals are already strained by COVID-19 patients, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated.
Here are some things on my mind as we continue learning about this fast-spreading variant:
- Omicron is likely to cause more breakthrough infections in vaccinated people than previous variants. However, information from our federal partners suggests that vaccines continue offering robust protection against severe illness and hospitalization. And those with booster doses generally are having even milder illness in the event of breakthrough cases.
- Omicron is even more transmissible than previous variants among people who aren’t vaccinated.
- It is possible that Omicron will cause less severe illness than other variants, as some news reports have suggested, but don’t bet your health on that possibility. Much remains to be learned about this variant’s severity.
- Even if it turns out that Omicron hospitalizes a smaller percentage of COVID-19 patients, it’s contagious enough to fuel a spike in cases overall, meaning more people hospitalized.
In addition, Omicron doesn’t respond to all available monoclonal antibody treatments, so the federal government is purchasing more of the treatments that work against this variant. And more help is coming in the form of antivirals in pill form, though these will be in extremely limited supply to start and available by prescription only.
I remind all Arizonans, however, that there already is an extremely effective way to reduce the chances of severe illness should you get COVID-19: safe, free, highly effective, and widely available vaccines. The state has invested in recruiting hundreds of nurses to help with hospital staffing during the pandemic, but having more people vaccinated and boosted is the best way to make sure hospitals can provide care for all amid Omicron. Please don’t let rampant misinformation on social media get in the way of that.
On our agency’s social media channels, we see people claiming that breakthrough cases mean that vaccines and boosters don’t work. For example, some are seizing on news about a U.S. Navy ship experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak despite virtually every crew member being vaccinated. The number of infected crew members hasn’t been released.
I encourage you to look at this situation differently: At last report, none of the infected crew members have needed hospitalization. So COVID-19 vaccines are doing their job of preventing severe illness and death in the event of these breakthrough cases.
I’m pleased to see the growing body of knowledge suggesting that vaccines and boosters are continuing to prove their effectiveness at protecting people from severe illness, hospitalization, and death. Any hospital will tell you that the vast majority of COVID-19 patients in their intensive care units and requiring the most care in emergency rooms and in-patient beds aren’t vaccinated.
As Omicron continues spreading, I strongly encourage you to get vaccinated or boosted as soon as possible. We list hundreds of convenient providers at azhealth.gov/FindVaccine.