Recently I stood in the ICU at the bedside of a man in his mid-40s. He was otherwise healthy, but now each breath was a struggle. He was infected with the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Ninety percent of his lungs were filled with virus and the inflammatory material that his immune system was generating in a desperate effort to fight the virus. On maximal support short of a ventilator, he was barely getting enough oxygen to keep his vital organs alive and at that point his chance of surviving was 50%.
He was unvaccinated.
I asked him why he chose not to get vaccinated and his answer didn’t surprise me. I hear it daily in my office, or in the hospital. He said he didn’t like the idea that people were being forced to get COVID-19 vaccines and he simply didn’t think he would get sick. Now, because of that decision his fate depended on the flip of a coin.
What that gentleman didn’t realize is that, like millions of other unvaccinated Americans, he allowed political factors to influence what should have been strictly a personal medical decision. In my experience as a physician I have never seen a medical issue as politicized as COVID-19. A Gallup poll released on Sept. 29 revealed that 92% of Democrats over 18 years old were vaccinated, whereas only 56% of Republicans were. Similar results were found with other polls. The same political breakdown can be seen in the vaccination rates across counties in the state of Nebraska. The more “red” the county the lower the vaccination rate. The differences are dramatic, ranging from 35% of eligible people in Cherry County to 65% in Douglas County.
It is time to take the politics out of the decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The numbers of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths are not falling in Nebraska. They remain unacceptably high, given the availability of safe and effective vaccines. The majority of infections and the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated individuals, and many of them are young and relatively healthy.
I have personally been involved in the ICU care of multiple men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. All unvaccinated. All of whom expressed regret that they didn’t get vaccinated as they faced weeks of rehabilitation and recovery, months of residual post-COVID symptoms, and thousands of dollars in medical bills. What many don’t realize is that COVID is likely to be with us for much longer than we initially thought. It may be with us permanently. We know that immunity to the virus after infection decreases over time, particularly as new variants emerge. That means that re-infections are likely to occur, with each re-infection being an opportunity for severe illness or death. Vaccinations and boosters when appropriate are the best long-term way to gain control and maintain control of the pandemic.
The decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine should be made by every individual based solely on the medical and scientific evidence. If you won’t get vaccinated because you are protesting vaccine mandates, or simply because you think it infringes on your personal freedom, that is a political decision — not a medical decision — and makes no sense at all. If you think that getting the vaccine is riskier than getting the infection you simply are ignoring the mountains of data that demonstrate exactly the opposite.
If you haven’t been vaccinated because you are young, healthy and don’t think you will get sick, you may be right, but the consequences of being wrong are devastating. These are the facts about the COVID-19 vaccines that can be supported by the best scientific data: They significantly reduce (but not to zero) the likelihood of getting symptomatic COVID-19 infection and dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hospitalized or dying.
The side effects are not significantly worse than other common vaccines. Deaths or long-term side effects associated with the vaccines are extremely rare. There is no effect on fertility and the vaccines are recommended for women who are pregnant.
In a perfect world where decisions are made based on real facts and evidence this pandemic would have been handled much differently and much more effectively. Millions of lives could have been saved. But, sadly, the pandemic became politicized very early on and remains so, to our detriment. It is not too late to change that. Make the decision to protect yourself and those you care about. Get vaccinated.