My elation was short-lived.
The relief I felt at the beginning of last month gave way to exasperation. For most of the past year, the only tools to prevent infection were centered on our own social interactions — wearing a mask, washing our hands and watching our distance. We all knew that, while helpful in slowing the spread, those actions alone would not end the pandemic, and for much of 2020 we pinned our hopes that vaccines would soon be made available.
Instead, vaccinations stalled as too many people refused to roll up their sleeves. Meanwhile, a sense of normalcy returned as restrictions were lifted and millions of people walked around unmasked and not distanced — vaccinated or not.
Once again, health care workers on the front line, wearing N95 respirators and eye protection, are again firsthand witnesses to the suffering of these patients.
Now, as Covid-positive patients fill hospital beds in areas with low vaccination rates, health care leaders are having discussions daily about how to restructure operations to handle the surge of coronavirus patients without impacting care for others who rely on our services.
This all collides with a historic health care staffing challenge. Eventually, something has to give.
As a doctor who cares for hospitalized Covid-positive patients, in recent weeks I have encountered many young patients who never imagined they would end up in a hospital bed. They are lucky to benefit from the knowledge we’ve gained in almost 18 months fighting this illness. And, most are remorseful over their decision not to get vaccinated.
However, often left out of that discussion is the ripple effect their decisions have had on other vaccinated patients in the community who also desperately need our care, such as the 68-year-old in need of a hip replacement or the 82-year-old whose heart valve urgently needs repairing.
A surge in Covid-positive patients puts pressure on our already strained workforce, not to mention the nurses and doctors who are leaving the workforce and shifting their careers after weathering wave after wave of patients.
The future of the health care system is in our hands. It is our choice how we want to shape that future for ourselves and our loved ones. We cannot take for granted that our health care workers will remain strong and present if conditions remain the same due to dwindling vaccination rates.
Just as wearing masks is as much about protecting others as it is protecting ourselves, it is time for us to recognize that getting vaccinated is more than an act of self-care. It is an act of goodwill for the entire community that can help us get past this pandemic.