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UA's Robbins, Carmona push vaccines to stem spiralling COVID pandemic

'The vaccine is just an incredible gift that we've been given'

As the state continues to endure record levels of new COVID-19 infections driven by the Omicron variant, University of Arizona officials continued to press vaccinations and masking as a bulwark against continued spread.

During a virtual press conference Monday, UA President Robert Robbins and Dr. Richard Carmona—former Surgeon General and a distinguished laureate professor of public health—said that increasing the overall vaccination rate is the only way to shift COVID-19 from a deadly pandemic to an endemic disease.

"What we're shooting for is accelerated herd immunity to have this become endemic," said Carmona.

"The vaccine is just an incredible gift that we've been given," Robbins said.

The number of Arizona residents who've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 has plateaued in the past two months, and only about a third of those eligible have gotten a booster shot. Starting before Christmas and then skyrocketing after the holidays, the number of new COVID infections in the state has reached unprecedented levels in recent weeks.

Since the new year began, there have been at least 351,025 cases of COVID-19 in Arizona, averaging more than 17,000 cases per day, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. This peaked on Jan. 10, when ADHS reported 25,370 new cases.

This is more than double the pandemic's previous peak of 12,458 cases reported on Jan. 4, 2021.

On Monday, ADHS reported 14,750 new cases of COVID-19, and a single additional death.

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Fortunately, while cases have spiked to record levels, the number of deaths have not followed the same pace in Arizona.  On Jan. 8, ADHS reported 42 deaths in Arizona, or roughly one-fourth of the 176 deaths recorded nearly a year ago on Jan. 18, 2021. However, as of Monday, at least 25,654 people have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic arrived in March 2020.

Researchers remain uncertain about why deaths have not tracked with the overall cases, linking the difference either to the increased vaccination rates among the vulnerable and elderly, or the Omicron variant's tendency to be less deadly.

Carmona said that the virus was spreading "very quickly."

While it's less virulent, it's spreading much more, he said, "So I think the most important message with the information we have now—we're not out from this yet—we are still in the midst of a pandemic with a new variant."

"The good news is it appears that when you get sick, it's not as bad as it was with the Delta," he said. "The problem is that it can still infect and can cause serious harm especially in vulnerable populations. So we still need to be very cautious and take the appropriate actions to be able to reduce transmission."

While Arizona has been successful at getting many seniors vaccinated, the overall vaccination rate remains below where it should be.

According to ADHS, around 4.8 million people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, or about 67.9 percent of the overall population. Among those eligible for the vaccine—which excludes children under 5 who cannot receive the vaccine pending approval by the FDA—the rate is higher at 72.3 percent. However, this figure is largely driven by the high vaccination rates among people over 65, whose vaccination rate approaches nearly 96 percent.

Among people under 18, the vaccination rate is just 31 percent, and among people aged 20 to 44, the state's vaccination rate is just around 63 percent.

"We still have about a third of the people that are not vaccinated," Carmona said. "And of course they're at increased risk not only for themselves, but for spreading diseases."

Robbins thanked the UA community for doing their part to “continue limiting the impact of COVID-19” on campus following the first full week of classes. He noted that the UA continues to run regular testing across the campus, including in-person testing and "take-away tests."

These programs, he said, have "done an amazing job to work to make the demand driven by our students, faculty and staff."

The UA is one of the few places where people can pick up a saline-gargle-spit test rather than nasopharyngeal swabs. In recent weeks, there have been questions about the accuracy of the nasopharyngeal swab's ability to detect the Omicron variant.

Robbins also praised the Biden administration's decision last week to begin sending out free-at-home tests to every household in the country. While the program has been hit with controversy over its implementation—largely over the system's apparent inability to deal with multi-unit houses and apartments—Robbins called the plan "extraordinary."

"If you have not yet taken advantage of this service, I encourage you to do so," Robbin said.

Similarly, the Biden administration said last week that it will also distribute 400 million N95 masks to the public from the nation's Strategic National Stockpile, after the CDC  recommended that people wear higher quality masks. Last week, the UA said that people on campus cannot wear cloth masks, but instead must wear surgical masks or better.

Robbins also reminded people to stay home if they have a positive test, or are exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19. "Please follow the guidance and take care of yourself so that you can recover quickly," he said. He also added that university staff should work with their managers for "possible flexible work arrangements" if they have risk factors.

"We want to make sure if you're at high risk, please don't come to campus," Robbins said.

Like with the rest of the state, the UA has endured a massive spike in cases caused by the Omicron variant.

Over the past 10 days, the UA tested 13,491 people on campus, and of those 1,467 people tested positive for COVID-19 — a positivity rate of just over 10 percent. Since the UA began testing, over 98,000 people have been tested and the overall positivity rate is 4.1 percent.

While the state's COVID numbers spiked on Jan. 10, the UA's spike came on Jan. 19, when the UA had 331 positive tests. 

Vaccine against COVID an 'incredible gift'

"You've heard this for the last couple of years— I'm sure everybody's expert in this now—getting yourself vaccinated, test regularly," Carmona said. "If you do test and you test positive, take the appropriate precautions, stay home, don't come to school, don't come to work."

"Don't spread the infection," he said. "Any of your family that's been exposed to you get them tested, and if they're positive, make sure that they follow the same rules, then wear your mask when you're indoors. This is still one of the best ways to prevent transmission of disease." 

"The good news is it appears that when you get sick, it's not as bad as it was with the Delta," he said. "The problem is is that it can still infect and can cause serious harm especially in vulnerable populations. So we still need to be very cautious and take the appropriate actions to be able to reduce transmission."

"We still have about a third of the people that are not vaccinated," Carmona said. "And of course they're at increased risk not only for themselves, but for spreading diseases."

Carmona compared COVID-19 to the polio virus, which was "rampant" in the 1950s and 1960s. However, now polio is rare "because everybody in the world has been vaccinated."

"So it's very uncommon to see polio today," he said. "And that's what we need to do. Make it very difficult for a virus to go anyplace. It's always going to exist, but it's going to exist normally, until it can come back and find a new petri dish—if you will—a human that will allow it to continue to replicate."

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"The vaccine is is just an incredible gift that we've been given," Robbins said.

"I know there's a lot of there's a lot of strong feelings from many people about not wanting to vaccine," he said. "That just didn't happen when we were kids and we were told to go get our polio vaccine. So I'm not sure how we got this far off track."

During the virtual press conference, Carmona echoed the calls from other health care professionals to limit hospital visits, especially for COVID symptoms, asking people to call their doctor, or use other telemedicine options to protect critical staff at hospitals. 

"If you're not feeling well, if you need a vaccination, if you need a letter to go back to work, don't go to the emergency room," Carmona said. "If you can, go on one of these call lines, ask a nurse, ask a doc, or use telemedicine," Carmona said. "Because each of you who show up, who don't have anything critical are taking staff away from those who need it."

Hospitals are understaffed "across the whole state" Carmona said, because of COVID-19.

"So as much as possible," Carmona said, use "other methods of communication" to get advice that "will allow you to stay home and not go out and expose yourself or to somebody else if you're sick."

Health care providers have been in an "invisible war going on the third year now," he said. "And they have families to take care of as well. And they're truly physically, mentally exhausted. So as much as we can do to take the burden off of them would be greatly appreciated."

Both men also pushed for masks on campus, and Robbins said that since the UA required masks on campus, most people were wearing them.

"I've been told that people have been very compliant when asked to put a mask on because we have masks in every classroom and every building," Robbins said. He noted that the crowd for the women's basketball games in McKale the crowd has been "exemplary."

"The men's crowd not so much, but they're getting better," he said. "I've noticed more and more people are wearing their masks at the men's game and we really want to continue to increase that number."

While Carmona focused on the polio epidemics, Robbins made his own comparison to the 1918 flu pandemic. The so-called Spanish Flu originated in Kansas and spread across the world, killing an estimated 25 to 50 million people by 1920. Robbins noted that after two years, the flu pandemic had settled into an endemic. "We're coming up on the two year anniversary," of COVID, said Robbins. "So my hope is that by the spring, summer, we'll be through the worst part of this."

COVID will be around, he said, "for years to come, more in endemic form than pandemic form," he said.

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"We're shooting for is accelerated herd immunity to have this become endemic," said Carmona. He added that researchers at the UA are working to incorporate the COVID-19 vaccine into flu vaccinations. "So it would be just another virus that we have to protect against."

"But, the quicker we can get it to stop mutating, the more likely it is we can get a better handle, and get a vaccine that may work," Carmona said. However, researchers need help and need people to buy time.

"You know I always think of this in terms of Darwin," he said. "You know it's survival of the fittest, that virus is trying to survive as hard as we are."

"I'm hoping that by the next time we meet, even if it's in a week, we're going to see dramatic decrease in the number of cases and then we'll we'll be on the road," said Robbins, "to getting through this latest outbreak."

"But again, from the very start even before we had the vaccine, the fundamental guiding principles of good public health hygiene have always been cover your face, wash your hands, stay away from people in close contact," Robbins said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine during a ceremony to close the drive-thru vaccination site on the UA campsu in June 2021.