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Arizona doctors: COVID variant killing the unvaccinated

Only 50% in state have been immunized so far

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Even as crowds surge back into movie theaters and concert venues, a new surge of COVID-19 cases and a new variant of the disease threaten more illness and potentially thousands of deaths that officials say are unnecessary and avoidable.

According to Dr. Scott Anderson, chief medical officer at Banner’s Boswell and Del Webb hospitals in the Sun Cities, the rising incidence of infections, hospitalizations and deaths is entirely preventable.

“A third wave is preventable,” Anderson told Daily Independent. “These hospitalizations that we’re seeing are preventable. These deaths that we’re seeing are preventable. We are very fortunate and blessed to be in a country where we have the opportunity to even get these vaccines, and there are millions or billions of people around the world who don’t get that opportunity.”

Asked if, despite successes in vaccination statewide, the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis is finally over, the career surgeon said probably not.

“I wish I could say yes,” Anderson said. “We’re starting to see a rise in cases, both nationally and locally here in Arizona. Unfortunately, those cases are predominantly in unvaccinated populations and it’s still only about 50% of Arizona’s population that’s been fully vaccinated.”

A new virus variant, known as the Delta variant, is responsible for much of the recent increase and appears to be deadlier than earlier versions of the virus responsible for an estimated 610,000 deaths nationally since the start of the pandemic, Anderson said.

“We know that the Delta variant is more transmissible; it’s easier to move from one person to another. It seems to show that people become symptomatic a little more quickly, a few days less than with the original variant. And, so, I don’t think we can say we’re out of the woods,” he said.

But unlike last year, as doctors and researchers rushed to find answers as the death toll climbed, the illness and deaths seen today are all avoidable.

“We do know right now that every hospitalization and every death, for the most part, is preventable,” Anderson said. “We don’t need to have patients admitted and dying from COVID right now. The vaccines are effective, they’re safe, and they can prevent this,”

“Our results at Banner are very similar to what’s being reported nationally; 97% of hospitalizations have been in unvaccinated patients and less than 1% of mortalities — I think it’s 0.03% — have been among the vaccinated,” he added.

Data released last week by the Arizona Department of Health Services confirms Anderson’s assessment, showing that since vaccinations began, the vast majority of those sickened or killed by the disease have been unvaccinated.

“In May, 95.4% of the 16,910 reported COVID-19 cases were among those who weren’t fully vaccinated,” reported ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ in a July 14 post at the agency’s website. “In June, 92.4% of the 12,911 reported COVID-19 cases were among those who weren’t vaccinated or weren’t fully vaccinated.”

Fully 99% of those who’ve died from COVID-19 since Jan. 1 have been unvaccinated, a fact Christ said proves vaccines work.

“All this points to a fundamental truth: Vaccines are demonstrating their effectiveness at preventing serious cases and deaths from COVID-19 and providing the strongest possible argument for the benefits of vaccination,” the director stated, urging those without the vaccine to get it.

“If you aren’t already vaccinated, I strongly encourage you to visit azdhs.gov/FindVaccine to locate a convenient provider and roll up your sleeve today. It protects you, your loved ones, and your community,” Christ said.

While the vaccines don’t necessarily prevent contracting the novel coronavirus, those who are vaccinated that do get sick show much milder symptoms and are far less likely to need hospitalization, Anderson said.

“When fully vaccinated, the vaccines on the market are very effective against all the variants, including the Delta variant,” he added.

While the numbers of hospitalizations today are much lower than those seen during the initial outbreak and subsequent peaks, they are increasing in a manner suggesting another deadly spike in cases could be coming, according to Anderson.

“We’re really only seeing the beginning of it,” he said. “We have seen an increase in the number of patients who have required respiratory support through a ventilator and the number of patients treated has increased.”

That number has doubled recently, he added.

“We’ve seen a 100% increased in out hospitalized patients at Banner in the last week,” Anderson said. “Still low, but they’re growing.”

One bright side, he said, is hospital staffers are more prepared after their experience during the past 15 months, though the disease still claims lives daily.

“I think we’re better now than a year ago at treating COVID,” Anderson said. “We’ve certainly learned a lot more about how these patients respond to different treatments. But it does remain a potentially lethal virus.”

For those yet to get the vaccine, Anderson urged caution and suggested those at risk — especially those with underlying health conditions, which could complicate treatment — follow guidelines established by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you have a condition or are taking medications that weaken your immune system, you may not be fully protected even if you are fully vaccinated. Talk to your health care provider. Even after vaccination, you may need to continue taking all precautions,” the CDC recommended at its website.

For those without complicating conditions who are fully vaccinated, the agency suggests no restrictions from normal daily activities. But for those without the vaccine, they advise caution and suggest avoiding some activities.

Among those pursuits listed as “less safe” for the unvaccinated are:

  • Dining at an outdoor event with friends from multiple households
  • Visiting a salon or barber
  • Going to an uncrowded indoor shopping center or museum
  • Attending a small, indoor gathering of vaccinated and unvaccinated people from multiple households

Activities listed as “least safe” for the unvaccinated include:

  • Attending a crowded outdoor event
  • Going to an indoor movie theater
  • Attending a full-capacity worship service
  • Singing with a chorus indoors
  • Eating indoors at a restaurant or bar
  • Participating in indoor exercise classes

Learn more at cdc.gov.

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