Sponsored by

Local

UA president urges people to test, get COVID shots as precaution against Omicron variant

Former Surgeon General Carmona believes new strain of COVID-19 already in U.S.

As the University of Arizona braces for a new variant of COVID-19 and cases continue to rise in Pima County, University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins pressed his case for students and employees to get vaccinated, seek out testing, and continue to follow good public health practices.

"It is still early, and scientists around the world are working to study and better understand this new variant," Robbins said during a virtual briefing on Monday. "As they do this work, we will continue to monitor public health conditions and adapt as needed."

Throughout the past year, UA has hosted briefings by Robbins and Dr. Richard Carmona, former U.S. surgeon general and now a laureate professor of public health, to outline how the university is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and call on people to stick with public health measures, including encouraging wider COVID testing and vaccinations on campus.

While the new variant has not been identified in the U.S., Carmona said that it was likely that Omicron has already arrived in the U.S.

Last week, researchers in South Africa identified the new strain of COVID-19 through the country's robust surveillance system, and on Friday, the World Health Organization classified it as B.1.1.529 or Omicron. While health officials still do not know whether Omicron is more transmissible or more deadly than previous iterations of the virus, the WHO labeled the virus a "variant of concern." 

The previous version of COVID-19 was tagged as a variant of concern was the Delta variant, which became widespread and dramatically increased COVID-19 cases worldwide. WHO officials have followed the Greek alphabet for new viral variants, but decided to skip Nu and Xi out of concerns that the names would be confusing.

At least 44 countries have instituted new travel bans, including the U.S., which blocked travel from South Africa and seven other south African countries to the U.S. for the next two weeks beginning Monday.

"So far, we have not seen any in the U.S.—but let me qualify that—most of us believe there are cases here already. We just are not aware because we haven't tested for that yet," Carmona told reporters. "But I'm certain in the near future. We'll see that."

Thanks for reading TucsonSentinel.com. Tell your friends to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

On Monday, Don Harrington, the interim director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, wrote that "so far, no cases of Omicron have been detected in Arizona."

"We were all hoping to be able to have declared we won this war and move on," Carmona said. "We're not there yet, we're still in the midst of a pandemic," he said, adding that the new variant means that UA officials will still have to "treat this as an ongoing pandemic."

However, he added that people can continue to fight the pandemic by getting vaccinated, despite concerns that mutations in the virus might make vaccines less effective against the Omicron variant.

"It's being studied, but early information suggests that our current vaccine is at least still good against this variant," he said. "We don't know how good yet, but there's reason to believe that the vaccine will still be very effective."

"We're just looking at how effective it is," he said, adding that it may be weeks before researchers understand how Omicron behaves compared to the previous version of COVID-19, including the Delta variant,.

"It is still early and scientists around the world are working to study and better understand this new variant," said Robbins. "As they do this work we will continue to monitor public health conditions and adapt as needed."

"I think it's important to recognize that new information on this variant will emerge rapidly and may at times be confusing to those of us who are not directly involved in the research," he said. "I encourage everyone to stay attuned to the guidance of public health officials and continue the public health practices we've been encouraging since this pandemic began. Cover your face in public, keep socially distant. Wash your hands and above all, get vaccinated." 

Carmona added that people should try to "stay in your own bubble."

"Don't go out in large groups, if you don't have to, you're exposing yourself needlessly," he said, adding that while the vaccines are effective people still be "asymptomatic carriers that can spread disease."

"So stay in your own family bubble, friend bubble, workplace bubble where you know each other," he said. "And if you're sick, stay home, don't go to work, don't go out in public."

Sponsorships available
Support TucsonSentinel.com & let thousands of daily readers know
your business cares about creating a HEALTHIER, MORE INFORMED Tucson

'Our numbers are in the wrong place'

Robbins couched his discussion on the "troubling" new variant by noting that in recent weeks, Arizona and Pima County have endured a sustained high rate of new reported COVID-19 infections. Robbins added that both he and Carmona review hospital data nightly, and noted that last week, hospitals in Arizona were treating more than 400 COVID patients.

Data from the Arizona Department of Health Services shows that on Sunday, across the state nearly two-thirds of emergency department beds were full, and 92 percent of in-patient beds were occupied—including 29 percent occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Similarly, just 123 ICU beds were available across the state, and COVID patients took up 37 percent of the state's 1,650 ICU beds.

Carmona noted that in Arizona there are roughly 45 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people. That's far above the national average of 25 cases per 100,000 people, and significantly above California, which has just 8 cases per 100,000.

Arizona has the 14th highest rate of cases in the nation, though Michigan now leads the nation with 85 cases per 100,000.

Carmona noted that Pima County reported 47 new cases per 100,000, exceeding Maricopa County, which is adding new cases at a rate of 45 cases per 100,000.

"The most important thing for us here in Pima County and in Arizona is our numbers are in the wrong place," he said. 

Carmona attributed California's relatively low rate in cases to the state's mitigation measures. Overall, about 73.6 percent of those eligible to get a vaccination have gotten one in California, while Michigan's overall vaccination rate trends with Arizona's at just under 64 percent. While Pima County's case rate has been at a plateau, he said that cases should be decreasing, but that new reported infections have remained high.

"So we have a long way to go," Carmona said. "And the message here is we cannot become become complacent. Everyone needs to get vaccinated, get the boosters and practice the appropriate mitigation strategies for the environment that they're in."

Robbins pressed UA students and staff to get vaccinated, noting that there's been a "slow uptake" in vaccines. "The most important thing you can do to protect yourself and the people in your community is get vaccinated," Robbins said, adding that UA employees must provide documentation of their vaccination under the Biden administration's rules.

He added that since the UA started requiring vaccination documentation, the UA's compliance rate went from about 50 percent to 80 percent. Robbins added that people who want an accommodation have two pathways for filing their disability or medical accommodations, while those with religious objections can file with the university's human resources department.

"If you have not yet completed the necessary steps, I encourage you and plead with you to do so right away," Robbins added.

Robbins also pushed hard for increased testing on the UA campus.

"This new variant is coming out and people are scrambling," he said. "We need to know the level of COVID-19 in our community and the only way we can do that is testing. Testing is vital to make informed and effective decisions, both for the institution and for each of us individually."

The UA offers free testing for students, employees and "designated campus colleagues." This includes rapid antigen testing, as well as the slower, but more accurate PCR tests. People can also grab a test kit that can be taken home and then returned for analysis later.

While PCR tests previous relied on a sometimes painful nasal swab, the UA's PCR test requires people to gargle saline.

And, as part of its push to make testing more widespread on campus, the UA has offered a rewards program for students, giving them $5 that can be used on campus if they test at least once a week four times.

Support TucsonSentinel.com today, because a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson.

"We've tried to make it easier and more convenient for you to test but I think testing is content continues to be one of those foundational pillars that we're going to need to use to mitigate this pandemic that has been waxing and waning," he said. Data from the UA shows that on Nov. 24 the overall positivity rate was 1.9 percent, with 17 positive tests out of 899.

Carmona said that the goal was for positivity to remain below 5 percent, and that data from Pima County shows that rate of new cases in the zip-code surrounding the UA is below the overall county. "Overall, it's not too bad, the transmissibility is not exactly what we wanted," Carmona said.

Carmona also praised the county's overall vaccination numbers, but cautioned that while over 60 percent of people have been vaccinated, this means that 40 percent of people is "still at risk."

"When I look at the other side of that number for the state, it tells us that 40 percent of the people approximately are not vaccinated," he said. "And this fear that it evokes in me and president is that those 40 are vulnerable."

"Yes, many of them will say well, it's not so bad," Carmona said, adding that some may think the novel coronavirus is akin to something like the flu. "And that may be so," he said. "But there are people that end up on ventilators, there are people that end up in the ICU, there are people that die because they've made that decision. And so I'm very concerned that not only places 40 percent of the population is still at risk, but by placing yourself at risk you place your family, your friends, your workers at risk because you can be carrying that virus and spreading it."

"So please adhere to the mitigation strategies and get vaccinated is no excuse anymore vaccines are readily available for free and your community," he said.

"I know people are tired of it," said Robbins. "I understand that—I'm tired of it. But we've got to continue to to do the right things to protect all of us, especially the most vulnerable in our populations."

- 30 -
have your say   

Comments

There are no comments on this report. Sorry, comments are closed.

Sorry, we missed your input...

You must be logged in or register to comment

Read all of TucsonSentinel.com's
coronavirus reporting here »

Click image to enlarge

Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

UA President Robert C. Robbins speaks during the closure of the University of Arizona's vaccination site, which closed in June 2021.

Categories

news, politics & government, education, health, local, arizona, breaking