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Carmona: As Arizona COVID deaths top 20k, we must come together to defeat virus

When I advise Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Health Services on emergency preparedness, including the COVID-19 pandemic, I give the best guidance I can from my perspective as 17th surgeon general of the United States. I offer frank opinions and honest assessments, however inconvenient they might be. 

And that's what I will do with you as Arizona rightfully focuses its attention on the tragic toll COVID-19 has taken on our state.

I say rightfully because we must never, ever lose sight of what this pandemic has meant to Arizona. The number of deaths, the number of cases, the number of hospitalizations – these aren't just numbers. They are our fellow Arizonans. They are men and women from every corner of our state. They are our loved ones, neighbors, and colleagues. They have names. Having spent the better part of my adult life as a healthcare provider, this is very much not an issue of numbers. It's about people.

The emotion attached to the milestone we reached today is understandable. I feel it too. I grieve for those lost to this virus. I'm heartbroken for the families and friends they leave behind. I'm frustrated and angry beyond words that COVID-19 still threatens not just lives but our economy, our jobs, our access to healthcare, our children's chances at the best possible education, and our way of life.

I've told the governor and I will tell you, I view the public health challenge we face as a war. It's a winnable war, and public health is very much on the front lines. But like so many of the wars our nation has fought in the past, we can't defeat the enemy on our own.

Today I ask that each of us commits to the following:

  • If you haven't already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccines work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is ignoring the science.
  • If you received the Pfizer vaccine and are recommended for a booster at this time, get one.
  • Even if you are fully vaccinated, follow the proven mitigation strategies, including masking indoors around those you don't live with, while COVID-19 spread in Arizona remains high or substantial.
  • Come together for the greater good. This is what Americans have always done in wartime. 

Get Vaccinated

In the months since vaccines became available, we've seen over and over just how effective they are. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report with ADHS participation, fully vaccinated people are five times less likely to get COVID-19 than those who aren't fully vaccinated. In these rare "breakthrough" cases, fully vaccinated individuals are more than 10 times less likely to be hospitalized or to die from COVID-19.

Just look at our hospitals stressed by the recent surge in COVID-19. Over and over they report the vast majority of the COVID-19 patients in their intensive care units and patient rooms aren't fully vaccinated.

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Vaccines work. If you aren't vaccinated, there are hundreds of providers around Arizona ready to give everyone 12 and older a safe, free, and highly effective COVID-19 vaccine.

The anticipated addition of kids ages 5-11 to Pfizer eligibility is great news, and I urge you to get your kids vaccinated when that recommendation comes down, just as you do now for other diseases that have virtually disappeared because of vaccines – polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and tetanus among them.

I've said it before, and it bears repeating: Vaccines are probably the most significant human health advancement in history. If you remain hesitant to get vaccinated against COVID-19, please seek out facts from trusted sources such as your doctor, the ADHS website, or the CDC.

Pfizer Boosters

For those who received the Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago, boosters are now recommended for everyone 65 and older, those in long-term care, and those ages 50-64 with underlying medical conditions. Federal officials say those 18 and older may get a Pfizer booster based on their professions or their living or work situations, along with those ages 18-49 who have underlying medical conditions.

Research shows that vaccines continue to offer robust protection against COVID-19. Adding boosters to the mix, including the potential for boosters of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen, doesn't change that. It just makes sure those already vaccinated continue to have the best possible protection.

Booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine are free and available at hundreds of locations around Arizona.

Follow Mitigation Strategies

There is a great deal of community conversation right now about mandates. I want to make one thing absolutely clear: Public health recommends things people can do to protect themselves. And that is what I will do here as the 17th U.S. surgeon general.

Guidance from ADHS has not changed: Everyone, vaccinated or not, should continue doing the following with COVID-19 transmission still high or substantial across Arizona:

  • Wear a mask in public indoor settings.
  • Continue following other proven mitigation strategies, including physical distancing of at least 6 feet and frequent handwashing or use of hand sanitizer.
  • Stay home if you are sick. 
  • Get tested for COVID-19 if you have symptoms or 3-5 days after exposure to someone who is positive. 

Masks are inconvenient, but we know they work. To wit: A recent CDC report focusing on schools in the Phoenix and Tucson areas found that schools where mask use isn't required are substantially more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks.

If you are the parent of a student, ADHS and I strongly recommend that that student go to school with a mask and wear it indoors, as we strongly recommend that everyone else do the same indoors. This public health recommendation applies regardless of any decision made by our elected representatives. That said, let's keep our eyes on the larger goal of bringing COVID-19 to heel. Surrounding kids younger than 12 with as many vaccinated people as possible protects children while bringing all of us closer to our goal of herd immunity against COVID-19.

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We're In This Together

I have seen war, and this is a war. Defeating COVID-19 requires commitment from each of us, the same kind of community-wide, nonpartisan effort that relegated polio and so many other vaccinatable diseases to mentions in our history books.

Lives, long-term health, jobs, the economy, education for our children – all of these hang in the balance while COVID-19 continues spreading, hospitalizing, and killing people. There is no escaping the fact that nearly all of the people COVID-19 is hospitalizing and killing aren't vaccinated, and that COVID-19 is spreading largely among the unvaccinated.

More than 20,000 Arizonans have died from COVID-19. I hope you share my sorrow for those lost lives, all of those hospitalized, and all who will have to live with long-term COVID-19 damage to their bodies. Today, we can prevent nearly all future occurrences with vaccination, and that's why vaccination remains our top goal.

To win this war, we must unite in our commitment to our society and our way of life.

Dr. Richard Carmona, the 17th Surgeon General of the United States, is advising Governor Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Health Services on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and public health emergency preparedness. After serving as Surgeon General from 2002-2006, Dr. Carmona became vice chairman of Canyon Ranch, a Tucson wellness resort where he now serves as Chief of Health Innovations. A member of several corporate boards, Dr. Carmona also serves as the Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health while also holding faculty appointments as a Professor of Surgery and Pharmacy.


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Dr. Richard Carmona during a press conference at the University of Arizona in March 2021.

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