By Anita D. Sircar, MD
My patient sat at the edge of his bed gasping for air while he tried to tell me his story, pausing to catch his breath after each word. The plastic tubes delivering oxygen through his nose hardly seemed adequate to stop his chest from heaving. He looked exhausted.
He had tested positive for the coronavirus 10 days ago. He was under 50, mildly hypertensive but otherwise in good health. Eight days earlier he started coughing and having severe fatigue. His doctor started him on antibiotics. It did not work.
Fearing his symptoms were worsening, he started taking some hydroxychloroquine he had found on the internet. It did not work.
He was now experiencing shortness of breath while doing routine daily activities such as walking from his bedroom to the bathroom or putting on his shoes. He was a shell of his former self. He eventually made his way to a facility where he could receive monoclonal antibodies, a lab-produced transfusion that substitutes for the body’s own antibodies. It did not work.
He finally ended up in the ER with dangerously low oxygen levels, exceedingly high inflammatory markers and patchy areas of infection all over his lungs. Nothing had helped. He was getting worse. He could not breathe. His wife and two young children were at home, all infected with the virus. He and his wife had decided not to get vaccinated.
Last year, a case like this would have flattened me. I would have wrestled with the sadness and how unfair life was. Battled with the angst of how unlucky he was. This year, I struggled to find sympathy. It was August 2021, not 2020. The vaccine had been widely available for months in the U.S., free to anyone who wanted it, even offered in drugstores and supermarkets. Cutting-edge, revolutionary, mind-blowing, lifesaving vaccines were available where people shopped for groceries, and they still didn’t want them.
Outside his hospital door, I took a deep breath — battening down my anger and frustration — and went in. I had been working the COVID-19 units for 17 months straight, all day, every day. I had cared for hundreds of COVID patients. We all had, without being able to take breaks long enough to help us recover from this unending ordeal. Compassion fatigue was setting in. For those of us who hadn’t left after the hardest year of our professional lives, even hope was now in short supply.
Shouting through my N95 mask and the noise of the HEPA filter, I introduced myself. I calmly asked him why he decided not to get vaccinated.
“Well, I’m not an anti-vaxxer or anything. I was just waiting for the FDA to approve the vaccine first. I didn’t want to take anything experimental. I didn’t want to be the government’s guinea pig, and I don’t trust that it’s safe,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “I can pretty much guarantee we would have never met had you gotten vaccinated, because you would have never been hospitalized. All of our COVID units are full and every single patient in them is unvaccinated. Numbers don’t lie. The vaccines work.”
This was a common excuse people gave for not getting vaccinated, fearing the vaccine because the Food and Drug Administration had granted it only emergency use authorization so far, not permanent approval.
Yet the treatments he had turned to — antibiotics, monoclonal antibodies and hydroxychloroquine — were considered experimental, with mixed evidence to support their use.
The only proven lifesaver we’ve had in this pandemic is a vaccine that many people don’t want. A vaccine we give away to other countries because supply overwhelms demand in the U.S. A vaccine people in other countries stand in line for hours to receive, if they can get it at all.
“Well,” I said, “I am going to treat you with remdesivir, which only recently received FDA approval.”
I explained that it had been under an EUA for most of last year and had not been studied or administered as widely as COVID-19 vaccines. That more than 353 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in the U.S. along with more than 4.7 billion doses worldwide without any overwhelming, catastrophic side effects.
“Not nearly as many doses of remdesivir have been given or studied in people and its long-term side effects are still unknown,” I said. “Do you still want me to give it to you?”
“Yes” he responded, “Whatever it takes to save my life.”
It did not work.
My patient died nine days later of a stroke. We, the care team, reconciled this loss by telling ourselves: He made a personal choice not to get vaccinated, not to protect himself or his family. We did everything we could with what we had to save him. This year, this tragedy, this unnecessary, entirely preventable loss, was on him.
The burden of this pandemic now rests on the shoulders of the unvaccinated. On those who are eligible to get vaccinated but choose not to, a decision they defend by declaring, “Vaccination is a deeply personal choice.” But perhaps never in history has anyone’s personal choice affected the world as a whole as it does right now. When hundreds and thousands of people continue to die — when the most vulnerable members of society, our children, cannot be vaccinated — the luxury of choice ceases to exist.
If you believe the pandemic is almost over and I can ride it out, without getting vaccinated, you could not be more wrong. This virus will find you.
If you believe I’ll just wait until the FDA approves the vaccine first, you may not live to see the day.
If you believe if I get infected I’ll just go to the hospital and get treated, there is no guarantee we can save your life, nor even a promise we’ll have a bed for you.
If you believe I’m pregnant and I don’t want the vaccine to affect me, my baby or my future fertility, it matters little if you’re not alive to see your newborn.
If you believe I won’t get my children vaccinated because I don’t know what the long-term effects will be, it matters little if they don’t live long enough for you to find out.
If you believe I’ll just let everyone else get vaccinated around me so I don’t have to, there are 93 million eligible, unvaccinated people in the “herd” who think the same way you do and are getting in the way of ending this pandemic.
If you believe vaccinated people are getting infected anyway, so what’s the point?, the vaccine was built to prevent hospitalizations and deaths from severe illness. Instead of fatal pneumonia, those with breakthrough infections have a short, bad cold, so the vaccine has already proved itself. The vaccinated are not dying of COVID-19.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has mutated countless times during this pandemic, adapting to survive. Stacked up against a human race that has resisted change every step of the way — including wearing masks, social distancing, quarantining and now refusing lifesaving vaccines — it is easy to see who will win this war if human behavior fails to change quickly.
The most effective thing you can do to protect yourself, your loved ones and the world is to GET VACCINATED.
And it will work.
Anita D. Sircar, MD is an infectious-disease physician and clinical instructor of health sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine.