In late June, hospitals in Georgetown County, South Carolina, looked a lot like those in much of the U.S., with just a smattering of inpatients with COVID-19. Some days, there were just two or three. On other days, there were none at all.

But as the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant took hold in the U.S., the numbers began to spike, said AMA President Gerald E. Harmon, MD, a family physician who has practiced in coastal South Carolina for more than 30 years, in a recent episode of the “AMA COVID-19 Update."

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“Now, about six weeks later, we're running 50 to 60 patients, inpatient-wide, among our hospital system with positive COVID diagnoses,” Dr. Harmon said last week. “And of those 50 or 60 patients, we have about 10 in the ICU and about five on ventilators.”

 


Those severe cases at Tidelands Health—the area’s largest health care organization—are almost entirely avoidable, though. Dr. Harmon noted that about 90% of patients in the ICU were not vaccinated against the disease.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine an emergency use authorization for use in individuals 16 and older back in December, many patients have been reluctant to get it without the FDA’s full approval.

The FDA granted that full approval, for the same age group, last week, so physicians need to now redouble their efforts to convince unvaccinated patients to get the shots, said Dr. Harmon. He has been a member of the AMA Board of Trustees since 2013 and was inaugurated as 176th president of the AMA in June.

“It gives us the most effective weapon we can have,” he said. “Prevention by vaccination is so much better than having to treat this highly virulent, highly contagious disease.”

Read about what doctors wish patients knew about the dangerous Delta variant.

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The federal approval “removes, I would hope, some barriers that might exist in the vaccine-hesitant, unvaccinated population and reassures them that this is a very safe, fully accredited vaccine by the FDA's very rigorous standards,” he said.

In other words, no corners were cut, despite the expeditiousness of the FDA’s review.

“The only expedition was in the funding. It wasn't in any of the rigorous scientific processes,” Dr. Harmon said. “There were adequate trials, very well-studied, held to very rigorous standards, and it was in emergency use authorization for now six full months after being implemented … so it's met fully our FDA approval standards for vaccines.”

The AMA recently issued a joint statement with the American Hospital Association and the American Nurses Association applauding FDA full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. With that full approval, the AMA also supports vaccine mandates by public and private sector employers and other organizations.

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What doctors wish patients knew about the dangerous Delta variant

“We’re good ambassadors. People trust their doctors. They trust their doctors almost before they'll trust anyone else,” Dr. Harmon said. “They really trust us now to give them the science, the proof that this is the right thing to do for their families.”

So be proactive, he said. Don't wait for patients to ask you about the vaccine. Push vaccination at every opportunity. Dr. Harmon brings it up whenever he encounters patients—not just in the practice setting but even in the supermarket.

“I say, ‘By the way, have you gotten your COVID vaccine?’ And if they give me a little, ‘Well …' and they look away, I say, ‘Listen. I can give it tomorrow in my office, no charge. I'm looking for you about 2 o'clock tomorrow. I'll tell my nurse you're coming.’”

Get the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines and variants and more reliable information directly from experts and physician leaders with the “AMA COVID-19 Update.”

You can catch every episode by subscribing to the AMA’s YouTube channel or the audio-only podcast version.

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