With the holiday travels and gatherings behind us, we can expect that the next few weeks will see an unprecedented surge in COVID infections and hospitalizations. As an immunologist with a Ph.D. and over 40 years’ experience, it has been extremely frustrating to see high levels of noncompliance with common-sense COVID safety precautions that are recommended by many health organizations. I’ve been called stupid, an idiot, or worse many times for advocating wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Nevertheless, I persist.
Maryland has recently reported a record of over 14,000 new COVID infections in a single day. The COVID death toll in the state is now around 12,000. More than 500 Marylanders died from the disease in December, and last week, we saw 55 COVID deaths in one 24-hour period. Pediatric cases of COVID are also on the rise. Medical institutions in Maryland are reaching their capacity due to COVID hospitalizations. Some hospitals have needed to institute crisis standards of care protocols, which include lower nurse-to-patient ratios, rescheduling elective surgeries, and redeployment of clinical and non-clinical staff. Many hospital staff have resigned during the pandemic due to burnout, and the suffering of the family members of those who have died or required hospitalization due to COVID is staggering.
I’ve heard every excuse imaginable for not getting vaccinated against COVID, but none are reasonable, except for those with valid medical reasons. People complain about their freedoms being trampled, but there simply is no inalienable right to endanger the health of others. We have laws against drunk driving, smoking in public, texting while driving, and other restrictions on “personal freedom” that are necessary to save lives. We already have requirements in schools for kids to get vaccinated against measles, mumps and other diseases.
Even George Washington required his troops to get vaccinated against smallpox. As early as 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of vaccine mandates, and many other legal precedents exist that uphold vaccine mandates and other public health measures. Misguided legal challenges to vaccinations are costing lives and inflicting great damage on the economy. The education of the children will also suffer greatly by failures to curb the spread of COVID. Many elected officials are shamelessly spreading misinformation to pander to uninformed voters and must be held accountable. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant clearly demonstrates that global vaccination efforts need to be rapidly increased to mitigate the threat to Americans and the world.
Immunization against smallpox and polio have virtually eradicated these diseases. People claim that the recent surges in new COVID cases demonstrate that the vaccines don’t work. Although breakthrough infections occur, data show that COVID vaccines work in dramatically reducing hospitalizations and death. About 80% of new COVID infections occur in unvaccinated individuals. COVID infections are costing us billions in health care costs and have stressed our heroic health care workers to the breaking point. New COVID infections also cost us billions in indirect effects to the economy.
Here in Washington County, the COVID situation is grim and will likely get worse. The COVID positivity rate has exceeded 27% and has been at 15% or higher for many days. Only 52% are fully vaccinated. Over 400 people have died in our small county in Western Maryland. However, if you go into stores or public spaces, few people are wearing masks. Enforcement of COVID safety violations is virtually nonexistent. Many elected officials here have flaunted COVID safety protocols to appeal to their largely Republican base. Our delegate, Neil Parrott, hosted an indoor birthday fundraiser for 300 this summer that was mostly maskless and ignored social distancing. Mr. Parrott also filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the COVID safety measures that Gov. Larry Hogan had instituted. After elected officials in Washington County downplayed COVID for many months, it is not surprising that many residents are unwilling to change their habits.
We all are exhausted by the pandemic, but we must remain vigilant. Now more than ever, everyone needs to get fully vaccinated and boosted, wear masks, and follow recommended safety precautions. Mandates, enforcement of COVID safety protocols, and other measures are essential for recovery. As a nation we are extremely divided on many issues but now is the time to come together in our fight against COVID and help our great country to heal. It is NOT a political issue. It IS a matter of life and death.
John F. Krowka (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired immunologist.