COVID-19 infections continue to rise in the United States with an average of more than 133,000 cases reported each day, as of mid-August 2021. That number leads the world, prompting Rochelle Walensky, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to proclaim a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” in July 2021. “Our biggest concern is we are going to continue to see preventable cases, hospitalizations and, sadly, deaths among the unvaccinated,” she said.
The tone of COVID-19 vaccine messaging coming from many medical professionals has shifted to better match the new reality. While there continues to be a sense of responsibility to encourage and comfort people, the time has come for some serious straight talk on what is now being called by many a self-inflicted pandemic.
“Unlike during the prevaccine phase of the pandemic, the current upsurge of suffering isn’t one that humanity has to go through. People are choosing it. And intent matters,” writes New York-based obstetrician Chavi Eve Karkowsky, who has been working with pregnant COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic. Karkowsky notes that a number of medical professionals are experiencing “compassion fatigue” toward the unvaccinated, who jeopardize not only their own lives but also the lives of those who have taken an oath to treat them. Many doctors and nurses also have been terrified to bring the virus home and infect their young children (who are still ineligible for the vaccine).
Phoebe Putney Health System, based in Albany, Georgia, serves more than 500,000 residents in 41 counties and has been hit hard by the pandemic. Enrique Lopez, M.D., a surgical intensivist at Phoebe Putnam Memorial Hospital who has recently helped out in Phoebe North’s COVID-19 units, gives a blunt account of the summer surge in cases. “I was not prepared for what I saw,” said Lopez. “There were yellow [isolation] gowns everywhere, and I saw a pastor who was entering a room. And I knew what was happening at that moment.”
Lopez goes on to describe the ravages of the delta variant that has hospitalized people of every age, color and creed. He then gets personal: “I’m talking [as] Enrique, the father of three children. … If this vaccine will just give me the smallest chance to not bring this thing into my house and hurt the people I love, it’s a no-brainer to me.”
Notably, this video is featured at the top of the main coronavirus information page on the Phoebe Putney Health website —a stark plea from a medical professional on the front lines. Lopez’s sentiments echo those of other clinicians across the country.
As Ohio’s rate of new COVID-19 cases rapidly climbs, Steven Burdette, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Wright State Physicians in Fairborn, told a local newspaper reporter, “I’m sick and tired of losing colleagues. I’m tired of having doctors die. I’m tired of seeing respiratory therapists die. I’m tired of seeing patient techs and medical assistants die of COVID. I lost friends, I lost peers — in this area and across the country.”
Matthew Sperry, M.D., pulmonary disease specialist, Intermountain Medical Group in Utah, says some COVID-19 patients refuse to believe they are infected with the virus. During an interview with The New York Times, he said, “We have people in the ICU with COVID who are denying they have COVID. It doesn’t matter what we say.”