Arizona expert warns that omicron poses serious threat despite being ‘milder’

Jan 20, 2022, 9:19 AM | Updated: 9:21 am
Eddie Lewis gets a COVID-19 test done by a health care worker on Jan. 13, 2022, in North Miami, Flo...
Eddie Lewis gets a COVID-19 test done by a health care worker on Jan. 13, 2022, in North Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The omicron variant may be causing a smaller percentage of serious illnesses than previous versions of COVID-19, but it still poses a serious threat, an Arizona medical expert warned.

“While we talk about this omicron variant being milder than the delta variant, that doesn’t mean it’s mild, it just means it’s not quite as aggressive as delta was,” Dr. Joshua LaBaer, director of the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute, told reporters during an online briefing Wednesday.

“Certainly, if someone is unvaccinated there is still huge risk of severe illness in people.”

According to data updated Thursday morning, Arizona hospitals have nearly as many COVID inpatients now as they did at the peak of state’s initial wave in 2020. The state’s COVID inpatient total has risen day-over-day on 18 of the last 19 days and has soared by 47% since the end of December.

The Arizona Department of Health Services pandemic dashboard showed the state’s hospitals with 3,336 COVID inpatients on Wednesday. While the level is approaching the high mark from the first wave (3,517 on July 13, 2020), it’s still well below the pandemic record set last winter (5,082 on Jan. 11, 2021).

And although Arizona’s overall reported hospital capacity has been relatively stable during the ongoing omicron surge, health care facilities and workers are buckling under the weight of the virus, LaBaer said.

“Just because we have beds doesn’t mean we have people to man those beds, and many of the people who should be manning beds can’t because they’re ill themselves,” he said.

“The folks in the health care system have been working under what are almost war-like conditions for a couple of years now in terms of managing this prolonged, ongoing pandemic and they are exhausted and tired and demoralized.”

LaBaer also said the omicron caseload is limiting the care available to non-COVID patients.

“A lot of people who have ongoing medical conditions, people with cancers, people with heart disease, people with other problems who need to get into the hospitals who have been waiting a very long time to get their care managed are still struggling to get in because of the glut of people who are in the hospitals due to COVID-19,” he said.

Here’s the latest data on the pandemic in Arizona (hospital, case, death, testing and vaccination statistics are based on Thursday morning’s update of the Arizona Department of Health Services COVID-19 dashboard; seven-day averages are based on tracking by The New York Times):

COVID-19 cases

  • Documented pandemic total – 1,683,915
  • Daily new reports – Thursday: 17,724; One day earlier: 20,497; One week earlier: 18,573; Pandemic high: 24,982 (Jan. 15, 2022)
  • Seven-day average – Wednesday: 20,261; One day earlier: 20,016; One week earlier: 14,972; Pandemic high: 20,261 (Jan. 19, 2022)

COVID-19 deaths

  • Documented pandemic total – 25,429
  • Daily new reports – Thursday: 13; One day earlier: 21; One week earlier: 10; Pandemic high: 335 (Jan. 12, 2021)
  • Seven-day average – Wednesday: 61; One day earlier: 58: One week earlier: 60; Pandemic high: 175 (Jan. 13, 2021)

COVID-19 hospitalizations

  • COVID inpatients – Wednesday: 3,336; One day earlier: 3,276; One week earlier: 2,920; Pandemic high: 5,082 (Jan. 11, 2021)
  • COVID ICU patients – Wednesday: 595; One day earlier: 589; One week earlier: 629; Pandemic high: 1,183 (Jan. 11, 2021)

Statewide hospital capacity

  • Inpatients beds available – Wednesday: 467 (5% of capacity); One day earlier: 482 (6%); One week earlier: 446 (5%)
  • Percentage of inpatient beds with COVID patients – Wednesday: 38%; One day earlier: 37%; One week earlier: 33%
  • ICU beds available – Wednesday: 94 (6% of capacity); One day earlier: 95 (6%); One week earlier: 78 (5%)
  • Percentage of ICU beds with COVID patients – Wednesday: 36%; One day earlier: 36%; One week earlier: 38%

Laboratory diagnostic testing

  • Weekly percent positivity – Samples taken this week: 29%; Last week: 33%; Two weeks ago: 29%; Pandemic high (for a completed week): 33% (Jan. 9-15, 2022)
  • Find a testing site: ADHS (statewide)


  • Percentage of eligible Arizonans fully vaccinated – As of Thursday: 59.6%; One day earlier: 59.6%
  • Percentage of eligible Arizonans with at least one shot – As of Thursday: 71.9%; One day earlier: 71.8%
  • Find a vaccine site: ADHS (statewide); Maricopa County Public Health (metro Phoenix)

Additional details

The ADHS daily case and death updates can cover multiple days of reporting because of data processing procedures and aren’t meant to represent the actual activity over the previous 24 hours. The hospitalization numbers posted each morning are reported electronically the previous evening by hospitals across the state.

The actual caseload is likely higher than officially reported because ADHS data is based mainly on electronic laboratory reporting and doesn’t include results from home kits unless individuals report them to their health care providers.

Vaccines have proven to reduce the likelihood of a COVID infection causing serious illness or death, even with the highly contagious omicron variant.

The minimum age for vaccination is 5 for Pfizer and 18 for Moderna or Johnson & Johnson. Boosters are approved, and highly encouraged, for individuals who received their second Pfizer (ages 12 and up only) or Moderna doses at least five months ago or the Johnson & Johnson shot at least two months ago.

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Arizona expert warns that omicron poses serious threat despite being ‘milder’