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DR. WILCOX COLUMN: Give the gift that can save a life

Data shows that suffering, serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19 can be dramatically reduced by vaccination. Hospitalizations and serious complications are predominantly impacting those who are unvaccinated.

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As we gather for the holidays, the pandemic, again, looms over our festivities.

Although there is still much to learn about COVID-19, after two years, we are certain of many things. This illness spreads most effectively among households, families, friends, coworkers and loved ones. It is a serious illness that affects all ages.

This fact couldn’t be more sadly represented than it was the week after Thanksgiving at a Sanford hospital near Fargo. A family who chose not to be vaccinated gathered for their Thanksgiving gathering. Eight days later the child, a parent and a grandparent were all admitted to the hospital on the same day due to complications from COVID-19. Since then, both grandparents have died -- a heartbreaking loss for that family during what should be a joyful time of year.

We know that COVID-19 is very dangerous to those at high risk, however, as this pandemic progresses with new variants, we are seeing more and more young and healthy people affected by COVID-19 than with previous months.

Since May 2021, 33% of all patients admitted to Sanford hospitals have no risk factors. In Bemidji, currently, half our patients are under age 60. We have admitted children in infancy, preschool and school age. Pregnant women have also gone into premature labor and delivered their child too early because of complications from COVID-19. Most recently, a 17-year-old died in Beltrami County from COVID-19 .

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Every person who gets the delta variant is likely to give it to four to six others in their social circle. With this variant, we saw cases double approximately every 17 days. However, the UK is seeing cases of the omicron variant double every two to three days.

In less than a month, omicron has become the dominant variant making up more than 51.3% of cases in London alone with the rest of the UK shortly behind. The CDC recently announced that Omicron now makes up just over 73% of all new cases in the U.S. Omicron has been detected in 46 states, including Minnesota, and already represents 3% of our cases. Experts predict it will displace delta within a few weeks. So far, there is no reason to believe that current vaccines do not offer some level of protection from omicron.

COVID-19 is overwhelming the health care system. Every day, every ER in Minnesota and our region has patients waiting hours and often days for a hospital bed. Now, if you need hospital care for any illness besides COVID-19, you are also affected by the pandemic.

Health care is finding a way, but that bed might be in a makeshift part of the hospital, not originally intended as a patient room. The exhaustion of constantly finding a way to make things work for two years has come at a tremendous cost for care providers.

Direct caregivers are leaving their profession and every job it takes to support patients in hospitals is getting harder to fill. You can prevent and reduce the effect of COVID-19 on those around you but you can’t predict when you will need care for a stroke, car accident, heart attack or cancer. Those things might have to wait because of COVID-19.

Data shows that suffering, serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19 can be dramatically reduced by vaccination. Hospitalizations and serious complications are predominantly impacting those who are unvaccinated.

Since May, 93% of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 at Sanford Health are unvaccinated. For patients needing ICU and life-supporting ventilators, the unvaccinated rate is even higher. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the pandemic, about 10% of patients requiring hospitalization for COVID-19 have died, despite our best efforts to save them.

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COVID-19 hospitalizations at Sanford Health
A Sanford Health graphic shows how many admitted COVID-19 patients at Sanford hospitals were vaccinated and unvaccinated as of Dec. 14. (Courtesy / Sanford Health)

We know that vaccines are not perfect, but they are vastly better than doing nothing. You may still get COVID-19 after a vaccine, but you are much less likely to and you are even less likely to become seriously ill if you do get COVID-19.

If you are exposed and vaccinated, you do not have to quarantine, but you should mask and test on day 5-7 to protect your family and coworkers. If you do get sick after getting vaccinated, you are less likely to spread the virus to your loved ones. All these benefits help to bring this pandemic to an end.

This is the season of giving. Most faiths embrace the concept of placing other people’s needs ahead of our own personal interests. We just celebrated our veterans. Regardless of their faith, they are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy in this country. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- all of which continue to be hindered by the spread of this preventable disease.

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is very effective, very safe and a relatively small sacrifice to make so that we all can enjoy the freedoms we hold dear. This holiday season and for 2022, the best gift you can give your loved ones is to get vaccinated and stay home if you are sick. Please, do your part. You can save a life.

Dr. David Wilcox is the vice president medical officer for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota and a practicing family medicine physician of more than 30 years.

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