PHOENIX – Arizonans who have had COVID-19 shouldn’t count on immunity from the highly contagious omicron variant, which continues to spread in the state, a leading health expert said Wednesday.
In a news conference, Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, told reporters that Arizonans should avoid the mindset that everyone eventually will get COVID-19.
“Certainly this is not a time to do a chicken pox party, (where) everybody gets together, just goes ahead and gets it over with,” he said.
In the past, LaBaer said, people could throw small “chicken pox parties” to infect friends and family because the illness had well-known outcomes – reinfection, for example, isn’t an issue with chicken pox, but one can be repeatedly infected with COVID-19.
Another key difference: COVID-19’s long-term effects can be devastating, unlike the chicken pox. So, while chicken pox parties were a way to deal with that virus, COVID-19 still is too poorly understood for COVID parties, LaBaer warned.
The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 20,497 new cases on Wednesday and 21 deaths, bringing the total of infections to 1,666,191 and total deaths to 25,416 since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.
LaBaer said Arizona is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, and hospitalizations now are at an all time high compared to the past six months. In some parts of the country, authorities say omicron cases appear to have peaked.
Arizona is not quite at the peak of the omicron surge, LaBaer said, but “it’s important to remember that even if we peak in terms of new cases, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods.”
He referred to patterns in the United Kingdom and noted how COVID-19 cases peaked and started to decrease there, but hospitalizations did not immediately follow that trend.
In Arizona, demands on health care workers remain high and staffing remains a huge issue in emergency rooms, where workers “are exhausted and tired and demoralized,” LaBaer said.
Although the omicron variant has been referred to as less severe than the delta variant, that doesn’t mean it is mild, he said.
“If people have other medical conditions – all kinds of medical conditions – omicron seems to be putting them over the edge and taking what was a moderate or well-controlled condition and making it severe enough that people need to get hospitalized,” LaBaer said.
He said the “number of breakthrough cases and people who’ve had COVID before is very high.”
He emphasized that getting tested, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated remain important. LaBaer elaborated on how “better quality masks do a better job at protecting against this highly infectious variant.” He said N95 masks are one of the best masks for protection, but he reiterated that “any mask is better than no mask.”
We need to do anything we can to stop the spread, “one thing the state of Arizona does not need right now are more cases,” LaBaer said.