But as a palliative care doctor, I have also seen the ravages of the pandemic up close. In a state that has staggering levels of covid-19 infections in the current wave, I am struggling to understand why so many of my fellow Mississippians continue to shun vaccination. With 37 percent of the population fully vaccinated, the state had the worst rate in the nation as of Sept. 1.
My job is to counsel and care for people with serious illness. For the past year and a half, that has included counseling those whose lives are threatened by complications from covid. Many need aggressive life support that requires sedation to the point of unconsciousness so they can endure the devastation being visited on their bodies.
At the hospital where I work, we witnessed tragedies month after month early in the pandemic, before a period of relative respite gave false hope for an end to the suffering. Now, covid has roared back, but with a difference: Cases often involve multiple unvaccinated members of one family, or of a small community.
On Aug. 20, the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson reported that the state outpaced the rest of the nation in the number of covid cases per 100,000 individuals: 120 vs. 43. One of Mississippi’s counties has the fourth-highest rate of new infections in the country. The number of total deaths is still highest among those 65 and over, but the largest number of infected Mississippians is now between the ages of 25 and 39. More than 20,000 students statewide are under quarantine, and reports of critically ill children are growing. The state lacks sound health policies for school attendance, and many parents feel beleaguered, with children ill or in danger of falling ill.
Yet despite the skyrocketing number of cases and tragic deaths of younger and healthier individuals, many in our communities have had little change of heart regarding vaccination. Many people are at risk — young children ineligible for vaccination, pregnant women and the very people who deliver medical care to the critically ill. In that context, the compassion of front-line health-care workers for the unvaccinated who fall ill is being strained to the point of collapse.
How did it come to this? Many people throughout the South take pride in their work, close-knit families, devotion to religious life and down-to-earth values. Many aspire to an old-fashioned sense of honor, which includes deference to leadership, respect of others and a willingness, even eagerness, to perform acts of kindness. They also take pride in their independence, toughness and stoicism.
Those characteristics have led many Southerners to be vaccinated, especially over the summer, but far too many others have focused on the qualities of strength and independence and lost sight of what is honorable.
Over the years, I have heard countless patients say something on the order of “give it to me straight, doc, and no sugarcoating.” So here it is: When you choose to remain unvaccinated, you are needlessly risking more than your own life — the people dying in Mississippi could be your loved ones, your neighbors or someone you’ll never know. It is not honorable to invite others to die for your personal opinion or beliefs.
Heroism is risking your life for the sake of others; there is no heroism in risking the lives of others for the sake of self. People are being infected because of recklessness — their own, or someone else’s. I realize that for those who have chosen to remain unvaccinated, reversing that decision will be difficult. It is unfortunate that this stand has become inseparable from personal identity.
Please, do not mistake this for a cause worthy of death. Trust that the vaccines are as safe as possible and that they work. Taking the vaccine during the pandemic is as heroic as donating blood during a natural disaster — and it has potentially a much larger impact on saving lives.
I was once told that a Southerner is someone who will do anything for a stranger if asked but will never do so if told. I am sincerely asking, then. Pleading, really: Become vaccinated if you are eligible. We can turn this around, but no amount of optimism will be enough. We must act now for ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our communities.