THE holiday season is in full swing and Covid-19 is not offering any respite, but vaccines and common-sense precautions are key to enjoying festive cheer and staying safe says Michael Dowling, the Irish-born president and CEO of Northwell Health, one of the largest healthcare networks in the United States with more than 77,000 employees throughout New York.

The Omicron variant has unsurprisingly been detected in more than a dozen states since being identified in southern Africa last month, but Dowling, a native of Knockaderry, Co. Limerick who has led Northwell since 2002, says Americans have the tools to combat Omicron – the first and foremost being a shot in the arm.

“It’s pretty stupid not to get vaccinated. There are new variants all the time and this one might be a little bit more difficult, we don’t know, but if you are vaccinated and you get the booster you can withstand it,” Dowling told the Irish Voice during an interview last week.

“That doesn’t mean you won’t get a little sick if you get the virus, but you won’t die if you have the vaccine.”

Caution needs to be exercised when it comes to holiday celebrations, Dowling says.  Vaccination is the key to enjoying a Christmas that will still be hampered by the pandemic, but not nearly to the extent that it was in 2020.

“Should large gatherings be restricted? Yes.  And people should be vaccinated when they get together, though that doesn’t completely protect you.  It’s one thing to get Covid and feel better in a couple of days; it’s another thing to get Covid and wind up in the hospital.  A vaccine can prevent that.”

Dowling didn’t press the panic button after Omicron was first detected, though he agrees that travel from southern African countries into the U.S. had to be temporarily stopped to allow for further investigation.   

“I think if people focus on the basics, if more and more people get vaccinated, if people get the booster and continue to wear masks, that’s what will beat this.  We have to let businesses come back, we have to have the economy growing. Otherwise it’s disastrous,” Dowling advised.

“There are health problems associated with people not working and people not being able to get out.  It’s caused a lot of mental health issues.”

Omicron has overtaken the Delta variant as far as headlines go, but Dowling says the media hype isn’t helpful and that researchers need more time to discover how potent – or not – the new variant is.

“We go through cycles. There’s a new variant and it gets publicized and everybody gets hysterical. We need time for the research to come back, and I believe it will eventually be determined that the vaccines in most cases will be able to deal with Omicron.”

Upstate New York is currently experiencing high levels of Covid-19 infection, which prompted Governor Kathy Hochul to issue an executive order last week barring 32 hospitals in, particularly hard-hit regions from performing elective surgeries.  The majority of Covid patients occupying hospital beds are unvaccinated which infuriates Dowling.

“It’s a big problem upstate, a disaster situation actually because so many people won’t get vaccinated. I’m putting together a group of 20 nurses who can go and help out in Buffalo because they need help,” he says.

When will the worst of Covid-19 be in the rearview mirror?  That’s not happening any time soon, Dowling cautions, but the high state of alert will eventually subside.

“The thing we have to understand is that we will have Covid for another 12 months. It will go up a little and down a little.  We will be inconvenienced for the next 12 months.  I do believe it will take all of 2022 for us to breathe a sigh of relief.  But make no mistake, we are in a better situation today than we were a year ago,” he says.

“We’ve got vaccines, we’ve got boosters, we’ve got masks.  We know how we can beat this.  It’s a matter of getting people to understand how important it is to vaccinate themselves.”

Northwell Health has a vaccine mandate in place for all of its workforce, though 1,800 employees did not comply and were terminated.  Northwell continues to hire more than 250 new employees per week and was able to cope with the loss of the unvaccinated workers, Dowling says.

“We’re doing fine. We’ve got good management here and we were able to move things around.  People coming to any Northwell facility should know that every staff person they meet will be vaccinated,” he adds.

What is Dowling’s message to the vaccine-hesitant?  Look at the statistics of those currently getting seriously ill or dying of Covid – the vast majority unvaxxed – and then go for a shot.

“You have an obligation to your own health, and you have an obligation to your family, friends and people around you.  The vaccines are safe and have saved so many lives already,” Dowling adds.