A message from the IHS Chief Medical Officer on Omicron and gathering during the holidays

Yesterday, President Biden announced new actions to protect the country and help communities and hospitals battle Omicron, building on the robust plan he announced earlier this month to get people maximum protection ahead of the winter and prepare for rising cases driven by the new variant. We must all continue to stress how critical it is to be vaccinated and to get booster shots before gathering with our family and friends over the holidays.

The recent emergence of the Omicron variant has further emphasized the importance of primary vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts to protect against COVID-19. These are important because we know that COVID has disproportionately impacted the American Indian and Alaska Native population.

Our COVID-19 vaccines are adding a layer of protection against Omicron, and this is especially true for people who get a booster shot when eligible. The COVID-19 vaccines provide excellent protection against severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 and all its variants, including Omicron. Currently, everyone age five and above is eligible for the vaccine and everyone ages 16 and above is eligible for a booster.

We will see a winter of severe illness and death for unvaccinated people. Unvaccinated individuals are at high risk of getting COVID-19, getting severely ill, and even dying. Hospitals may soon be overwhelmed – if they are not already -- including many of our federal and tribal health facilities. In a hospital overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients or with health care workers who may get breakthrough infections, it is difficult for staff to treat patients with other emergencies such as a heart attack or injuries sustained in an accident. This is another reason why being vaccinated is critical to saving lives.

The Omicron variant is spreading faster than the original COVID-19 virus. In just a few short weeks, it is now the dominant strain. Breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated may occur, but because they are vaccinated, the risk of severe illness and hospitalization is minimal. This is not a moment for us to panic. We know how to protect people, and we have the tools. We need everyone to do their part to protect themselves, their families, their elders, and their communities.

I am calling on all of you who are not vaccinated or who do not have the booster, to do so as soon as possible at your IHS, tribal or urban Indian organization health facility or visit vaccines.gov if you are not near an Indian health system site.  And I ask tribal and urban Indian organization leaders to please encourage vaccination, boosters, and prevention measures among your tribal community members.

Because of how COVID has affected our American Indian and Alaska Native communities, we need to use all available tools to fight the omicron variant:

  • Get vaccinated. Vaccines remain the best way to protect people from COVID-19, to slow transmission, and to reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging
  • Stay 6 feet away from others – especially if you are at higher risk of getting very sick.
  • Wear a mask to add an extra layer of protection and from being exposed especially in indoor public places
  • Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces
  • Use hand sanitizer and wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • Consider getting a COVID-19 test before joining indoor gatherings with others who are not in your household. Many IHS, tribal, and urban sites have test kits for you to take home.

Please help us practice these prevention strategies so that when we gather for the holidays, we are not exposing others to the virus. I hope everyone has a safe holiday season.

Loretta Christensen MD MBA MSJ FACS

Chief Medical Officer

Indian Health Service

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