The message coming from doctors and public health officials this week is loud and clear: The omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is one of the most contagious viruses the world has ever seen – second only to measles with cases doubling every two to three days – and is threatening to sink our already stressed-beyond-belief health care system and re-traumatized our fatigued health care workers.
Last Sunday, the leaders of six major health-care systems in Cleveland, Ohio, took out a full-page ad in that state’s largest newspaper, featuring one powerful word: “Help.”
“We now have more COVID-19 patients in our hospitals than ever before,” the health care workers said in a small paragraph at the bottom of the full-page ad, “and the overwhelming majority are unvaccinated. This is preventable. We need you to care as much as we do.”
The messaging in our neck of the woods is no different.
Last week, Oregon hospital leaders and state officials said omicron is poised to overwhelm the state’s already stressed hospital system and asked Oregonians (and Southwest Washingtonians, who frequently work, shop, dine and recreate in Oregon) to help keep this surge from happening by getting vaccinated — and boosted — against COVID-19.
We know vaccinations are still helping to prevent severe cases of COVID-19. One recent study in Massachusetts showed that COVID-19 vaccines prevented severe illnesses in 97 percent of breakthrough cases. Preventing severe COVID-19 cases means we’re also preventing our hospital systems from becoming clogged and overwhelmed by patients who require massive amounts of care to pull them through an illness that has claimed the lives of more than 800,000 Americans in less than two years.
We also know that those who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 are at risk of developing long-term “long COVID” health complications from simply being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and having even a mild case as well as at higher risk of severe illness and death.
In Washington, public health officials from the state’s Department of Health warned this week that individuals unvaccinated against COVID-19 – including younger people – face much greater chances of being infected, hospitalized and dying from the coronavirus than their fully vaccinated peers.
The Washington Department of Health report, released Dec. 21, shows:
- Unvaccinated 12- to 34-year-olds in Washington are four times more likely to get COVID-19 and 19 times more likely to be hospitalized compared to fully vaccinated 12- to 34-year-olds.
- Unvaccinated 35- to 64-year-olds in Washington are five times more likely to be infected by COVID-19 and 18 times more likely to be hospitalized due to the virus compared to fully vaccinated 35- to 64-year-olds in this state.
- Unvaccinated Washingtonians over the age of 65 are seven times more likely to catch COVID-19, 12 times more likely to be hospitalized and 13 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than their fully vaccinated peers in the 65-and-older age group.
Many unvaccinated folks living in Clark County seem to believe – likely due to misinformation and disinformation coming to them on social media and through like-minded friends and family – that natural immunity to COVID-19 is superior to vaccinated immunity and will protect them during the upcoming omicron surge. You can see this argument play out time and time again on any Clark County Public Health post on Facebook.
“What about natural immunity? Why isn’t anyone talking about that?” they ask every time the issue of requiring proof of vaccination to take part in activities like traveling, going to school or sitting inside a restaurant comes up online.
We wish natural immunity could fully protect people. No one wants to see families suffer from losing a loved one to this virus. Unfortunately, not only do most studies show that natural immunity varies from person to person and that around one-third of those infected with COVID-19 never actually develop antibodies, but researchers now say the omicron variant, which will likely be the dominant variant causing COVID-19 in the U.S. in a matter of weeks, “appears to have substantial ability to evade natural immunity acquired from past COVID-19 infections.”
In fact, the first death in the U.S. attributed to the omiron variant occurred this week in an unvaccinated man in his 50s who had already survived a COVID-19 infection.
There is still time to help turn these warnings around and avoid overwhelming our health care workers and hospitals in the new year. Medical experts and public health officials are clear on what we all need to do: Get vaccinated against COVID-19 to lower your chances of developing a severe infection; avoid large gatherings; properly ventilate your indoor spaces; and continue to wear masks in public.
“We know that wearing masks is not something new. It’s been one of the key ways we’ve protected one another. But now, with Omicron surging, we have to be even more diligent. If you are thinking twice about whether to wear a mask in a particular situation, opt for yes,” public health officials in King County, Washington, recently stated, adding that the best masks for preventing transmission of the omicron variant are going to be N95, KN95 and KF94 “provided they are genuine and have been tested to meet a standard.” If you cannot find one of these types of masks, a surgical mask is the second-best option and cloth masks that have at least two layers – or a cloth mask over a surgical mask – would be a third runner-up. For more information on masks, visit Public Health Insider, a blog from public health staffers in Seattle and King County, at publichealthinsider.com/2021/08/10/masks.