Guest column: COVID-19 is here for the holidays

Published 8:45 pm Thursday, December 23, 2021

Guest column by Sumit Bhagra and Robert Albright Jr.

The holiday season is here, and as much as we would like COVID to be behind us, that is not the case. COVID-19 continues to be a public health threat with cases rising nationwide and right here in Southern Minnesota. “Bah, humbug,” as Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol would say. The best line of defense is getting vaccinated and receiving a booster, if you are eligible. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in preventing severe COVID-19 illness and related hospitalizations and death.

Sumit Bhagra

Mayo Clinic hospitals have been operating at or near capacity for months, and over the past few weeks, we have seen increases in the number of COVID-19 patients needing care. Mayo Clinic modeling shows that number is expected to remain high for the next several weeks. We have managed the increasing numbers since August, and are now seeing our highest patient volumes, and most seriously ill patients, since the beginning of the pandemic. The extended length of this “fourth wave” surge is exhausting for our staff and communities.

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ICU numbers fluctuate from day to day, but currently, COVID-19 patients occupy many of the ICU beds as well as a significant portion of medical/surgical beds that are needed to care for people recovering from strokes, heart attacks, injuries and surgeries. As the omicron variant continues its rapid spread, the latest data shows that vaccinations and boosters are key to preserving hospital capacity. An unvaccinated person is 20 times more likely, and a person who has had the vaccine but no booster is 10 times more likely, to suffer severe symptoms or be hospitalized than a person who is fully vaccinated and has had a booster. In communities across Southern Minnesota, completed vaccine series by people 5 years old and over remains below 65%, and the rate is even lower for boosters. The result is a significant portion of our population without protection from severe disease. This has an impact in the hospital. Of the patients infected with COVID-19 who have been in the ICU over the past few weeks, the number of unvaccinated patients is five to six times higher than vaccinated patients.

Robert Albright Jr.

As you make plans for holiday gatherings, vaccination is your best option for celebrating safely and for protecting your family and friends, including people with weak immune systems and children too young to be vaccinated. Mayo Clinic also encourages everyone to practice safe behaviors with masking, testing, frequent handwashing, physical distancing and staying home if you do not feel well. Widespread vaccination will reduce the spread of infection as well as prevent mutation of the virus into even more dangerous strains of disease.

Despite the unrelenting nature of this pandemic, we remain grateful this holiday season for our patients who put their trust in us, for our staff who continue to go above and beyond as they care for patients and one another, and for the strength of our communities that forge ahead as we learn to co-exist with COVID-19. We wish you well this holiday season.

Dr. Sumit Bhagra is site lead physician and Dr. Robert Albright Jr. at Mayo Clinic Health System in southeast Minnesota.