The Arizona Department of Health Services and Yavapai County Community Health Services confirmed Arizona’s first known case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant on Dec. 8.
Although some initial data from the South African Medical Research Council indicates the Omicron variant may have less severe symptoms than previous mutations, health officials advise the public to receive vaccinations or booster shots if they have already gotten vaccinated.
Pfizer-BioNTech released preliminary results from a non-peer-reviewed study showing the Pfizer COVID-19 two-dose vaccination series will somewhat neutralize the omicron variant, but three doses is most effective.
“I think that this finding from Pfizer should be reassuring and should reaffirm to people how important it is for them to get a booster and if they are not vaccinated to please seek vaccination as soon as possible, especially with the holidays coming up,” Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said during a Dec. 8 press conference.
As scientists race to understand Omicron, vaccines are the best option to avoid national shutdowns. Cullen said that people who are vaccinated protect themselves, their families and their communities.
“While it is not the only way out of this pandemic, it is an essential component for us to be able to move forward and to start recovering,” Cullen said.
The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) recently released a study finding unvaccinated Arizonans from July to October were 3.9 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and were 15.2 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to fully vaccinated people.
Vaccinations lower the need for hospitalizations by limiting more severe COVID symptoms, something that is desperately needed as intensive care unit beds decrease in availability.
Cullen said only 2% of ICU beds were available in Pima County.
“We had the most ICU beds in use by COVID positive patients yesterday since Feb. 7,” Cullen said.
Amid widespread knowledge of hospital bed availability and Omicron, the public responded positively to the reopening of free vaccine administration at the Tucson Convention Center starting Dec 1. Cullen reported that TCC has had large turnouts for vaccinations, including long waiting lines. She also said the Abrams location had increased numbers as well.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to divert $3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act Fund on Dec. 7 to fund the county’s COVID-19 testing program.
“We expect our Liberty site that Paradigm supports to open up, so it will be available Monday through Saturday,” Cullen said. “We also expect our downtown site supported by Paradigm to expand.”
Epidemiologist Dr. Joe Gerald, a professor in the UA Zuckerman School of Public Health who has been tracking COVID cases since the virus first arrived in Arizona, reported that as of Dec. 3, there was a significant decline in COVID cases reported due to Thanksgiving break.
Gerald said holiday breaks usually lead to a decrease in testing. Gerald has consistently recommended an increase in testing to get more accurate reflections of the transmission of COVID in Pima County.
Pima County offers free COVID-19 antigen rapid tests and PCR tests at the Ellie Towne Center, Tucson Electric Power's downtown office, and Liberty Plaza. The County is planning on extending hours at all locations and specifics will be announced soon.
The County will also be providing free BinaxNOW at-home self-test kits at all Pima County public libraries and kits will also be provided at the Abrams Public Health Center, 3950 S. County Club Road, on Dec. 10 and Dec. 17 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
For more information on Pima County libraries: pima.bibliocommons.com/locations