Arizona health officials say ‘mild’ omicron still a risk

PHOENIX (AP) — Hospital officials and public health experts in Arizona are warning against dismissing omicron because of its reputation for being a less severe COVID-19 variant.

"Even if it’s declared as mild, it’s really not. It consumes a number of resources. It complicates other health care," Dr. Michael White, of Phoenix-based Valleywise Health, said Wednesday during a virtual news conference.

White commented amid reports that some people are deliberately trying to catch the highly contagious variant, believing they will suffer mild illness in exchange for gaining natural immunity.

Early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant. But vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, also said not to be dismissive of it. There’s always a chance omicron could trigger serious illness or long-haul COVID-19 symptoms down the road, he said.

Even if a lot of cases are found to be mild, there will inevitably be people who will need to go to already taxed hospitals.

"Voluntarily getting infected when the health care system is already stressed and potentially adding to that stress is probably not a great idea either," LaBaer said. "The whole system is something we have to pay attention to."

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been inching upward in the state since Dec. 31, when they were 2,283. They were up to 2,929 as of Tuesday.

Sonora Quest Laboratories, which conducts the majority of COVID-19 tests in Arizona, broke its single-day record for the number of tests processed on Tuesday. The state’s largest diagnostic lab went through over 34,000 samples, Chief Operating Officer Sonya Engle said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the state coronavirus dashboard reported a record high of 18,783 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Wednesday. Another six virus-related deaths were also reported. This brings Arizona’s pandemic totals to 1,524,363 cases and 24,992 deaths.

Phoenix surgeon Dr. Sam Durrani says he’s tired like everyone else, but he doesn’t think the COVID-19 patients straining hospital systems right now will let up anytime soon.

"The problem is, it’s affecting our ability to care for other patients that need it – that don’t have COVID. That’s been the problem all along, surgery is halted across the Valley right now," he said.

Valleywise Health says as of Jan. 12, they have 50 positive patients within their medial, adding that it is the highest amount of patients they have had in the last several months.

This is causing a strain because Valleywise is having to pull resources, staff and space within the hospital to treat their COVID-19 patients.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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