‘Express our humanity, but do it safely’: State’s top health adviser shares holiday advice

Arizonans are entering their second pandemic holiday season with concerning numbers of COVID-19 infections, strained hospitals and the spread of a new highly transmissible variant.

How to stay safe despite our urge to return to normal?

Dr. Richard Carmona, Gov. Doug Ducey’s COVID-19 advisor and 17th U.S. surgeon general, shared his advice and concerns for weeks ahead with The Arizona Republic.

His key message remains the same: Get the COVID-19 vaccine and get the booster dose. Tell others to do the same.  

For the holidays, Carmona urged people to keep up good public health practices to decrease the chance of spreading disease. Stay in a social group of vaccinated people, avoid large public gatherings, wash hands and wear a mask, he said.

The omicron variant is rapidly outpacing the delta variant — it represented 73% of new COVID-19 cases nationwide last week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The extent of its spread in Arizona isn’t clear yet, but experts say omicron provides yet another reason to get vaccinated and boosted. Hospitals are already under strain, and another surge in cases, some requiring hospital care, would pose a challenge.

“We’ve been at war for two years with an invisible threat, and our health professionals are tired. People are suffering from depression and mental health challenges from not being able to express their humanity and give people a hug, recreate the way that we did before,” Carmona said.

“We’re all in this together. We are all inextricably tied together. This virus kills Democrats, Republicans, independents. We have to level the playing field, come together as Americans and do everything we can to stop the transmissibility,” Carmona said.  

Here’s his advice about the omicron variant and how to celebrate holidays safely as COVID-19 spread continues.

More on omicron: As omicron variant arrives in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey is sticking with his old playbook

Keep up good public health practices

“We should do everything we can to express our humanity, but do it safely,” Carmona said.

His recommendation is to gather with friends and family but to create a bubble of people who have been vaccinated. He also urged:

  • Wearing a mask “as much as possible” and “when in doubt at any time.”  
  • Avoiding large gatherings.
  • Washing hands often.
  • Getting tested if you have symptoms or have been exposed.
  • Making sure you’ve gotten vaccinated and boosted.

“It’s important because you can’t be isolated forever. People are suffering because they don’t have the human exposure. We live with hugs and kisses and relationships and high-fives. We gotta be able to do those, but do it safely,” he said.

Get vaccinated and boosted

Carmona’s primary message to Arizonans is to get vaccinated and get the booster when eligible.

That’s the best way to protect yourself, your family and the state and help quicken a return to normal life and economic recovery, he said.

“We have the tools to be able to slow the transmission down … most important being we still need to get everybody vaccinated and boostered. One of the best tools that we have, and we haven’t used it maximally yet,” Carmona said.

Nearly 57% of Arizonans have been fully vaccinated, which trails the national average of nearly 62% of Americans fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Unvaccinated Arizonans were 15.2 times more likely to die from COVID-19 and 3.9 times more likely to test positive than fully vaccinated people, according to state data from October.

Carmona said people cannot continue to let misinformation, politics and stubbornness prevent them from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Unvaccinated people: Please talk to your doctor, talk to a health professional to explain to you why this is important to get vaccinated, if you have any doubt. Don’t rely on spurious information from a friend or from the internet,” he said.

More than 80% of people who are dying in hospitals from COVID-19 are not vaccinated, he said.

“So when you say, ‘Well, I’ll just take my chances.’ Well, you may do OK, you may be lucky, but do you want to roll the dice? Are you sure you won’t be the one that ends up in the ICU on a ventilator or even dying? And do you want to be the one that may be spreading disease to others?” he said.

Health experts urge booster shots for the strongest protection, especially with the omicron variant spreading. People are eligible for boosters six months after their second Pfizer or Moderna dose or two months after their Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

About three-quarters of Arizonans who are eligible to get a booster shot have yet to do so, and 56% of those 65 and older who are eligible have yet to get a booster even though they are more vulnerable to severe outcomes, according to the state health department.

Wear a mask, even if you’re tired of it

Masks remain an important tool against getting and spreading the disease, Carmona said. He knows people are tired of masks, and that for some, wearing a mask can even be “aggravating.”

“We’re not done with it,” he said. “I understand the inconvenience, I understand the stress it causes, but it’s a fair trade-off to be inconvenienced to prevent a disease that depending on who you are, could make you very sick or kill you.”

Watch for symptoms, and get tested

Omicron is certainly spreading in Arizona as it is around the country, and with a fast doubling time, it may spread very fast and create challenges for Arizona, Carmona said.

“It may be less toxic, but nevertheless it still makes you sick … at a very inopportune time, because this is a time when our snowbirds are here, it’s flu season, and now we have another virus to deal with — or viral variant,” he said.

Symptoms are similar between omicron and delta, Carmona said, often a sore throat, runny nose and cough. And it can be hard to tell if it’s the flu or COVID-19, so that’s why testing is important, he said.

“If you feel sick, whether you think it’s flu or coronavirus, stay home, don’t go to work, don’t go to the party, Zoom into the family gathering, so that you’re not spreading disease, because even spreading flu at this time is going to be a challenge because our resources are stretched to the very limits. So let’s keep as many people healthy as we can.”

Moving forward, it will be helpful for people to test for COVID-19 intermittently even if they don’t have symptoms or known exposure since people can carry the virus without knowing it and still can spread it, he said.

As the state does more sequencing of test specimens, Carmona expects to see omicron samples quickly overtaking the delta variant. Sequencing is important for public health understanding of how disease is spreading, but not for treatment, he said. Patients don’t typically find out which variant they tested positive for.

“For your care, it doesn’t change anything. We still want you to isolate. If you’re real sick, you’re going to go to the hospital. If you can’t breathe, you’re going to get oxygen. If that doesn’t help, you get on a ventilator. When we have immunotherapy and or antivirals, you’ll get it,” he said. “Either variant, it doesn’t make a difference.”

‘Help us help you’

There’s significant concern in the medical community that resources may soon be outstripped, Carmona said.

Health care facilities for weeks now have struggled with high patient loads and staff shortages. Ducey recently gave hospitals an additional $35.2 million to help with staffing, and federal officials are sending emergency response teams to two rural hospitals.

Hospital leaders and state officials are discussing how to further help rural hospitals and whether to delay non-emergency operations and procedures to conserve resources and be able to take care of people that are getting sick, he said.

“Please, help us help you,” by practicing the mitigation measures, Carmona said. 

“Our health professionals are exhausted,” he said. “We need to do everything we can to keep the resources freed up, so that we can care for those who are legitimately ill, from COVID and other illnesses. What about the senior who gets a heart attack or the diabetic? So it’s not only COVID, we have to take care of the routine things that happen every day.”

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or at 602-444-4282. Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.

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