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Exhausted Tucson ER doc: Vaccine hesitation can be deadly, heartbreaking delay

Dr. Laura Elias de la Torre is a hospitalist physician at St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson.

I’m traumatized. I didn’t recognize it at first. We were “all in it together.” Hospital staff, Target and supermarket workers, and the community. It was nearly a year of constant fight or flight state of vigilance and isolation before we got the vaccine. By then we had seen too many people get sick and die. Doctors and nurses had seen more death in six months than we had in our whole careers. Hospitals had to buy new more morgue refrigerators.

The vaccine was going to be a game changer. It wouldn’t be long before the “oath of solitude until the pestilence is purged from the land” memes would be irrelevant. For me, it wasn’t that restaurants would reopen. The plan was that fewer people would get sick and die isolated from their loved ones.

But a funny thing happened on the way to recovery. Some people are refusing the vaccine. This is when my trauma really set in. It's not just seeing people come into the hospital coughing, shivering, and short of breath, struggling to talk, with *that look* in their eyes – the “I think I’m going to die” look. Now there are incomprehensible numbers of people in this country who CHOOSE not to get vaccinate.

I’ve been asking every patient I admit to the hospital (for any reason) if they’ve been sick with COVID and if they’ve gotten the vaccine. The unvaccinated fall into two categories. There are those who have dug in their heels. They adamantly refuse the vaccine for some ideological reason.

However, there’s another group of unvaccinated patients. These are people who haven’t gotten it yet because they’re confused and frightened. They’re afraid of COVID. Perhaps they’ve even lost a family member to the disease. But they’re also scared of the vaccine. They hear from some sources that the vaccine is safe and will ultimately save lives if we all get immunized. They hear the opposite from other sources. They don’t know whom to believe and they HESITATE to go out and pursue getting the vaccine.

Sometimes I meet these folks when I’m admitting them to the hospital for another reason. This is now a standard part of my medical interview. I can listen to their concerns and answer their questions as non-judgmentally as I can. Sometimes, though, I’m admitting this person to the hospital for acute hypoxemic respiratory failure due to multifocal pneumonia caused by COVID-19.

The vaccine-hesitant patient sick with COVID will often ask, “Can I get the shot now?” That is heartbreaking. We had a chance to give this person’s immune system an instruction manual to recognize and fight the viral infection. But the ideological anti-COVID-vax people have put out so much disinformation, conspiracy theories, and other nonsense that many people became confused and have not “yet” gotten the vaccine. For some, it’s too late. 

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COVID-19 is not a theoretical concept. It's not an opinion. It's not a point of view. It's a disease. It's a person who was walking around last week who is now struggling to breathe while we find ways to get oxygen into their lungs. It’s someone who will be on a ventilator for weeks and need an oxygen tank for the rest of their lives. It’s someone who will die before their time. 

There are two ways to decrease your risk of getting severely sick, or dying, or living with chronic long-haul respiratory illness from COVID-19. One is to do your best to prevent the virus from getting into your body: mask in public, physical distancing, and handwashing. The other thing to do is to train your immune system to recognize and fight the virus if it does get into your body. GET THE VACCINE. 

Dr. Laura Elias de la Torre is a hospitalist physician at St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson.

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TucsonSentinel.com is one of dozens of news organizations around the country that are noted for reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, and participating in "The Last Best Shot," an effort led by The Boston Globe to combat COVID-19 vaccination disinformation.

We have a clear choice. We can mark the start of a future in which COVID is relegated to little more than a nuisance, or we can watch the disease spiral further out of our grasp. Nearly 18 months after the pandemic shuttered much of the world, we are still in a state of uncertainty, one that threatens to steal yet another season and kill people who don't need to die.

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Stop the spread

The Pima County Health Department asks the public to help stop community spread of COVID-19 by taking the following steps:

  • Get vaccinated against COVID-19 and flu
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