On July 2, I learned that for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, not a single bed at our hospital was occupied by a Covid-positive patient. After 16 grueling months of fighting the virus on the frontlines alongside my colleagues, we had finally reached the milestone we were desperately seeking.
My elation was short-lived.
In the days that followed, I watched as the Covid-19 case count across Georgia climbed. Almost as sharply as cases had fallen after the last wave, the coronavirus was now raging back with a vengeance. As severely ill patients flooded our emergency room, acute care floors and intensive care units, a common theme emerged: We were admitting more young patients than we did earlier in the pandemic -- and they tended to be unvaccinated.
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.
In December 2020, as my colleagues and I weathered some of the darkest days of the pandemic, we found solace in the knowledge that millions of vaccinations were going into arms across the country. The tide would turn and the pandemic would wane. Or, so we thought.
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.
This latest coronavirus surge is the first since the pandemic began that was unambiguously preventable. While the new highly contagious Delta variant is behind this latest wave of infections, it is not a coincidence that the areas of the country seeing the worst outbreaks are those where vaccination rates are lowest.
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.
Our health care system was not designed for this. The initial waves of the pandemic caused many patients to delay seeking care. As daily cases were trending down in the spring, a surge of patients finally felt comfortable to seek care for worsening chronic conditions, resulting in a new wave of patients needing treatment for advanced diseases.
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.
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