The pandemic enters the ‘personal choice’ phase

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

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And so it’s come to this. The Anchorage Daily News’ report on the recent covid-19 deaths told us something that we figured would be coming: That only unvaccinated people are dying from coronavirus. That alone is not particularly remarkable breakthrough—after all, the whole point of the vaccine was not just to reduce the spread of the virus but the severity of possible infections—but what I found particularly eye-catching is this quote from Fairbanks Memorial Hospital’s Dr. Barbara Creighton: 

“It’s just heartbreaking and devastating to go through all that and watch that happen,” she said. “But it is a personal choice. We do all we can to educate them, and then we have to step back and respect that choice. That’s all we can do.”

Personal choice. 

It’s, perhaps, a jarring turn for a pandemic where many of us collectively changed our behavior in order to protect ourselves, our families and our communities from the fast-spreading virus. For a year, we’ve worn masks and followed health precautions that all fit together under the banner: “My actions protect you and your actions protect me.” It was about a collective effort to curtail a virus as long as we didn’t have a more effective preventative measure.

But now we do.

We have a vaccine that, at least in Alaska, is widely available to whoever wants one (there’s nearly 35,000 appointments on this handy-but-not-comprehensive vaccine website ready to be booked through the end of this month). And through some combination of politics, political disinformation and good ol’ procrastination, the state’s vaccination rate has largely leveled off. Alaska’s vaccination rate has fallen from a leader in the country to somewhere in the middle of the pack.

From a personal and public health perspective, it’s challenging. The last year and more of work we’ve put into the combating the pandemic would tell us that we should probably care about these unvaccinated folks who are succumbing to the virus. That as members of their community, we should continue to work to help protect everyone. But, as I’ve written before, there has to be some point where we collectively decide what’s an acceptable baseline toll for getting back to normal.

After all, people die from the flu—including children—and we don’t dramatically change our lives to stop that. The question is where we draw the line. And it seems like that line is being drawn right around “There’s a widely available vaccine that will keep you out of the hospital,” which sounds about right to me.

How long are people who’ve followed the rules, listened to medical advice and received the vaccine going to continue to put their lives on hold out of concern for people who by and large couldn’t be bothered to care in the first place?

After all, it is a free country. 

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