Health

Arizona health experts urge residents to get COVID-19 boosters

ADHS: Unvaccinated 31.1 times more likely to die

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As the omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to surge following the holidays and amid a return to work or school environments for much of the Valley, local health experts are touting the importance of booster shots.

The most recent vaccine breakthrough infection report from the Arizona Department of Health Services reported that in November 2021, those who weren’t vaccinated were 31.1 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated. The unvaccinated group was also 4.9 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19.

That’s a big increase from October’s data, when the unvaccinated were just 15.2 times more likely to die from COVID-19 and 3.9 times more likely to get infected. The report attributed some of the shift to better efforts to reach fully vaccinated people as well as an overall increase in booster shots among the state’s population.

“It’s difficult to see the difference in deaths overall and by age group because it’s so rare for fully vaccinated individuals to die from COVID-19,” said ADHS Interim Director Don Herrington in a statement presenting the report’s findings. “If you remain undecided about getting the vaccine, the data makes a strong case for getting a lifesaving shot that can spare you from severe illness, long-haul COVID and more.”

The department’s COVID-19 data dashboard showed 14,888 new cases and 30 new deaths on Friday. As of the same day, about 66% of Arizonans have received at least one dose of the three approved vaccines. Of people ages 5 and older who are eligible to be vaccinated, 61% are vaccinated, compared with 63% nationally, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also reported that 34.3% of fully vaccinated people over the age of 18 in the state had received a booster shot as of Thursday.

The CDC updated its recommendations this week for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to expand booster doses to 12to 15-year-olds.

That change is important as the highly infectious and transmissible omicron variant has become the most dominant strain in the U.S., and in Arizona.

“We know that one of the things about omicron is that it makes your vaccines less effective. The vaccination protection with two doses of an mRNA vaccine against omicron is down in the 40-something percent range — so not great. But with a booster, that protection goes up over 75%,” said Dr. Melanie Swift, co-chair of Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 Vaccine Allocation and Distribution Work Group. “We know that in addition to the fact that your immunity just wanes over time, omicron, in particular, is more susceptible to your immune response after the third or booster dose. So we are really encouraging people to get that booster dose.”

In a news briefing Tuesday, her colleague Dr. Gregory Poland, said the country is seeing more than 1 million cases of omicron every day, an “underestimate” due to testing and reporting inconsistencies.

“Nothing new is happening that we didn’t predict prior to the start of the holidays,” he said. “That has been doubling every day for two or three.”

Poland also noted pediatric hospitalizations are rising, not surprising given the low vaccination rates in young people and the different way omicron impacts the body. Just 15% of 5- to 11-year-olds and 50% of 12- to 17-year-olds are vaccinated.

“Unlike delta, omicron tends to be more upper airway,” he said. “That equates to decreased morbidity in adults who have large upper airways and is a decided negative in young kids who have narrow upper airways.”

David Lozano, a spokesperson for Banner Health, said Arizona’s largest hospital system is busier than ever.

“Most of those COVID patients we are treating in our hospitals are unvaccinated,” said Lozano. “Our hospitals continue to be very busy at this time treating both COVID and non-COVID patients. This virus is resulting in higher vaccine breakthrough infections, particularly with those who have not received their booster. If people have not been vaccinated against COVID or have not received their booster shot, we continue to urge them to get these to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and possibly death.”

Monica Prinzing, a spokesperson for CVS Health, also addressed vaccine and booster hesitancy. CVS has administered more than 41 million COVID-19 tests and 50 million COVID-19 vaccines since the start of the pandemic, and has the inventory to keep doing so.

“Vaccines remain the best way to reduce risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19,” she said. “Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant. However, breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur. With other variants, like Delta, vaccines have remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. The recent emergence of Omicron further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters.”

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