This was supposed to be a no-brainer.
As COVID-19 killed more than a half million Americans last year, scientists and immunologists devised two obvious strategies to confront it.
The first was to slow its death march through masking and social distancing. That was intended to be a temporary, albeit lifesaving, inconvenience, as the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed began developing a vaccine so that everyone could quickly get back to their unmasked lives.
The vaccine was the second strategy; the one that could ultimately render COVID-19 as extinct as polio and smallpox.
It was a no-brainer. It made sense. Until social media and political opportunists infected it with nonsense.
Too many people, equipped with more information than wisdom, began to trust internet memes and Facebook and YouTube conspiracy theorists over science and medicine. Republican politicians seized on that mistrust to score points with voters, namely rural ones, who wrongly believe the government is coming to get them, not to help them.
Now, all of that has morphed into a hot, deadly mess.
The COVID-19 virus has mutated into the delta variant – a variant that, according to a leaked memo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published by The Washington Post – is far more deadly and contagious than COVID-19.
That mutation largely occurred because when few people are vaccinated, they become breeding grounds for the virus to replicate in more resistant forms.
In Tennessee, only 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. It is largely the unvaccinated people who are being sickened and killed by the variant; this week, 23 people died of COVID-19 in Shelby County.
In Shelby County, only 36 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
Caught in the middle are people like Ptosha Jackson, the administrative director of nursing at Methodist Le Bonheur’s Germantown Hospital.
She, the nurses and other medical workers in the intensive care unit are struggling to care for patients who are there because of crises that they had no control over, such as strokes or heart attacks, or car accidents, and those who are suffering from COVID-19 – which they had control over by taking the vaccine.
On Thursday, there were 132 COVID positive patients across the Methodist Le Bonheur system, according to spokeswoman Sarah Farley. Only five ICU beds were available.
For Jackson, it’s beyond frustrating.
“We are talking about making more beds in our ICU because we are seeing COVID numbers increase every day,” she said.
“If you don’t get the vaccine, and you come into the ICU, we have to shuffle everything for those who are having strokes, heart attacks, a sickle cell crisis, even though transplant patients who need basic care in the ICU…
“I have a chemotherapy patient that we have to make a bed for, because she needed her chemotherapy treatments, but because we’re going up in our COVID-19 numbers, we have to shuffle beds. And we can’t put them [COVID-19 patients] beside chemo patients, because you can’t put an immunocompromised person in the same ICU unit as someone with COVID-19…”
The stress on staffers, Jackson said, is crushing.
“Not only do you have to look at the surroundings of the room, the surroundings of the ICU, you have to think about the staff,” she said.
“ I can’t have a nurse taking care of an immunocompromised person and then taking care of a COVID patient. We don’t mix nurses that way. Once a nurse takes care of a COVID patient, she has to take care of a COVID patient for the rest of her shift.”
That means that unvaccinated people aren’t only putting themselves in a position to be sickened or killed by COVID-19. They’re also putting medical workers in a predicament in which they have to struggle to provide patients who suffer from other illnesses and injuries with the care they need.
That’s unfair – because unvaccinated people don’t have to be there.
And here’s why.
Those who are unvaccinated because they don’t trust the government should understand that the only reason the government is involved is because government is supposed to promote the general welfare.
A deadly pandemic would certainly qualify as threat to the general welfare.
That’s why Operation Warp Speed was coordinated between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Defense.
It makes no sense for anyone who would go to war in foreign nation for the sake of patriotism and protecting the homeland to then turn around and spurn a vaccine developed to defeat a pandemic that could make them just as dead as an enemy’s bombs.
And also, those who refuse the vaccine should think about this: If you don’t trust it, or the advice of medical professionals like Jackson and others who urge you to take it, why trust those same professionals to make you well once COVID-19 sends you to the ICU?
Certainly, by urging the vaccine, they're part of the conspiracy, no?
Again, it makes no sense.
“Some people are saying, ‘If I get the vaccine, I still have this 5 percent chance of getting it, because it’s only 95 percent effective,” Jackson said. “But even if they have that 5 percent chance, if they get it [COVID-19] they won’t come into the hospital. That’s what they don’t understand.”
Then, there are those who believe the vaccine was developed too quickly. But Jackson said that a SARS vaccine was already in the works when COVID-19 emerged, and work on it was simply accelerated.
“It’s like when the hurricanes come. Everyone grabs sandbags and prepares. Same concept,” she said.
Also, approving vaccines and medicines for emergency use isn’t unusual. In fact, developing a vaccine in time to stop scores of people from dying, especially with today’s technological advancements, should be considered a triumph, not a shortcoming.
Concerned about side effects? That’s legitimate. But not everyone will suffer from vaccine side effects. And besides being potentially deadly, COVID-19 survivors may wind up with long-term damage to the kidneys and lungs.
In other words, conditions that could have been avoided by taking the vaccine.
Other concerns, like the idea that the vaccine somehow has a control chip in it, are just nonsense.
“What I tell people when they say that is that, if you have a cell phone, you have a chip already,” said Jackson, who hears that reason from young COVID-19 patients. “We can ping you when you go anywhere.”
Not to mention the fact that it might be next to impossible to inject a chip through a needle syringe.
(Insert head-shaking emoji )
It’s tragic that after all the work that was put in to devise a vaccine to save people’s lives and to help everyone resume normal activities like hugging their grandparents and going out to parties and bars, we may have to go back to square one; to resume masking and distancing, and doing the things the vaccine was intended to spare us from having to do.
Even more tragic is that the politicization of the pandemic has blurred the connection between individual freedom and collective responsibility.
Many see their refusal to get a vaccine, or to wear masks, as a statement of personal freedom.
But what they don’t feel is a collective responsibility to take the vaccine so that they don't push the healthcare systems that they depend on to the point of collapse.
But seeing that unvaccinated people obviously trust the health care workers once they’re in the ICU, they should repay that compassion, and urge others to repay that compassion, by getting vaccinated.
In spite of the limits of what vaccines can do – apparently vaccinated people can spread the delta variant too – it is still the best defense against dying from the disease or becoming hospitalized by it.
No one should rely on the internet or conspiracy theorists, memes or politicians who are looking to capitalize on their confusion and cultural resentments, but can’t treat them once COVID-19 sickens them. They should talk to people like Jackson. Or their doctor. Or to anyone in the business of keeping them well.
With few exceptions, they’ll all say take the vaccine. So that life can get back to normal. For everyone.
Tonyaa Weathersbee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter: @tonyaajw