The latest statistics are terrifying. Or, at least, they should be.
In the week after New Year’s Eve, Los Angeles County recorded approximately 174,000 COVID-19 cases, or nearly 1.7% of all Angelenos. On Thursday alone, we hit a record 37,215 new infections, primarily driven by the extraordinarily contagious Omicron variant, which now accounts for about 85% of coronavirus infections across the region. We broke another record on Friday, with 43,712 recent outbreaks.
The increase is so severe that city officials are canceling sick leave, offering overtime and ordering longer shifts just to maintain public safety services, while more than 1,000 police, firefighters and paramedics are infected with COVID-19 . The emergency rooms are overcrowded.
Across the state and across the country it’s pretty much the same story.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the peak,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told the “Today” show on Friday, adding that “Hospitals right now are full of people who are not vaccinated.”
Yet in Dr. Roberto Vargas’ corner of California in South Los Angeles, where he has been helping lead an effort to persuade black and Latino residents who hesitate to get vaccinated, what he hears is not terror by Ómicron, but resignation. And, perhaps more worryingly, what you hear more and more is surrender.
“There were people who said ‘it’s okay, I could have safely hidden and stayed away from people,’ but that doesn’t seem to matter,” Vargas said. “So now this next wave means’ everyone is catching COVID. Why didn’t I get infected now? ‘
If that sounds silly and more than fatalistic, well, it is. As much as taking children to a “COVID-19 party” to deliberately infect them so that they theoretically have natural immunity when, in reality, they could easily end up in intensive care.
However, this relatively new mindset has created another challenge for public health officials trying to deliver the most effective message to get people to decide to apply antigens.
As a reminder, 75% of Los Angeles County residents have had at least one dose of a vaccine, 67% are fully inoculated, and about 25% have received a booster. But nearly half of black and Latino residents remain unvaccinated.
The problem with Omicron is twofold.
The first part is the (evolving) thought that this variant causes milder infections and is less lethal than previous strains, which is generally true, but not always, particularly among those who are not vaccinated or have no boosters. .
However, Vargas told me about a family member who had refused to inoculate himself and contracted COVID-19 during the holidays. Fortunately, he recovered without needing to be hospitalized, but considered that the experience of a coronavirus infection “is not so bad.”
“I was so mad,” recalls vice dean of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. “It is a difficult message to give [sobre las vacunas] because the current attitude is, well, everyone is getting COVID, and people are looking around and they see that many people have coronavirus and do not die. “
In fact, as of this week, county hospitals were treating only a fraction of the coronavirus-positive patients they had treated in the same span last year, when the deadly Delta variant was circulating more widely than it is today.
“This can change, obviously,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer warned Thursday. “Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator. And as cases increase, soon after, we start to see increases in revenue. “
Hospitals are already dealing with staff shortages on their own, as nurses and doctors report sick.
“So that’s the real difference between what is now and what we had, for example, during the Delta surge,” Ferrer explained, “where there were a lot of patients that needed hospital care, but not this dizzying rate of infection that really it made it very difficult to have enough staff to serve people. “
That brings us to the second part of the problem, which is the feeling that contracting COVID-19 is now inevitable, whether one is vaccinated or not.
Even I thought this way when I took a trip to the Midwest during the holidays. I arrived just as the Omicron variant, which is two to four times more contagious than the Delta variant, had started to emerge.
Wherever I went, people were sick. Coughing and sneezing, sniffling and blowing your nose. Every pharmacy I visited was out of cold and flu medicine. Coronavirus tests of all kinds were impossible to get.
I watched as the inoculated people who had spent months meticulously wearing masks and social distancing almost gave up, indulging in the inevitability of it all. People not vaccinated too.
I was almost ready to join them. Then I found out about my uncle. Call it a reality check.
A cancer survivor in his 70s who is inoculated and boosted, had somehow contracted COVID-19. Omicron or Delta, I’m not sure. Now sedated and on a ventilator, he is being pumped with a large number of drugs, some of them experimental.
Somehow, you are lucky. He has excellent health insurance and lives across the street from a branch of the Cleveland Clinic, which has a well-stocked and well-supplied staff. That’s kind of a privilege, particularly within the poorer Black and Latino communities.
In fact, this gets to Vargas’s main argument for young people in many South Los Angeles neighborhoods who see the Omicron cases and think, “Why didn’t I just catch it?”
Most, he knows, are not like my uncle, with their private insurance and access to state-of-the-art hospitals. It is quite the opposite.
“I have always tried to view our data from a confluence of low vaccination rates and no access to healthcare resources. And then say, it’s okay, we really have to do everything possible to get people vaccinated, ”explained Vargas. “Because if they get sick, it is very likely that they will die, since they will not get to a good health center.”
Vargas is also concerned about what will happen when COVID-19 becomes a more endemic disease. Will South Los Angeles residents have easy access to expensive new drugs and therapies to treat COVID-19, like Pfizer’s Paxlovid oral antiviral treatment?
“Will the pills be available?” He asked. “Or, unfortunately, are the disparities widening?”
Add to that the prevalence of chronic diseases in South Los Angeles, from obesity to diabetes to hypertension, while poor Black and Latino communities are at the highest risk of negative outcomes, even from a mild COVID-19 infection.
Getting vaccinated is the only way to avoid some of these long-standing disparities, which continue to widen despite more than two years of a pandemic that has exposed the healthcare system for everyone in government to see.
An uninoculated person in Los Angeles County is 38 times more likely to need hospitalization than a vaccinated and boosted individual, as reported by colleagues Luke Money and Rong-Gong Lin II.
“When we talk about the message, the next wave of this narrative really has to be that the people who are being hospitalized and dying are largely the uninoculated.”
The unvaccinated, the poor, the blacks and the Latinos.
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