To Self-Serve and Protect

These are confusing times. The government leaders in both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government who have repeatedly assured us that this pandemic thing was overblown and dismissed the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations (even after they were watered down) as unwarranted hysteria have cut in line ahead of me to get vaccinations.  I do not usually take government action personally, but in this case I must object.  I take this very personally.

Although many members of Congress and a few of the White House staffers are as old as dirt, most are not old enough to qualify for the initial doses of Covid-19 vaccine.  None of them qualifies as active healthcare providers, emergency medical technicians, nurses, medical transporters, ambulance workers, physicians’ assistants or other individuals designated by numerous state and federal agencies as the appropriate recipients of the first vaccinations. In fact, many of them facilitated the spread of this plague by holding massive rallies without social distancing, refusing to wear masks, and applauding those who insisted on infecting their families and friends. Despite their well-documented disregard for human life, these “leaders” have rushed to get their vaccinations even before me.

They have designated themselves “essential workers,” and I must disagree. Aside from the cynical view that they are neither essential nor workers, one must consider the effect on society as a whole if some of them (and they have consistently argued that vanishingly few of them are at risk) get Covid-19. If virtually all of the legislative branch and all of the executive branch and all of the judicial branch left the capitol as they do every Christmas, the effect would be and is imperceptible.  If 2two nurses or two transporters or two radiology technicians working in the ICU at Yale-New Haven Hospital got sick, the impact on patient care would be obvious immediately.

And so why is it that relatively young and apparently healthy men and women like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Joni Ernst needed to cut in line in front of me to get vaccinated? Why did Mike Pence get the shot while Secretary of State Pompeo invited 900 people to a Christmas Party, no masks required? Some of them claim that they are merely trying to reassure the general public that the vaccine is safe. One must ask why we need a safe vaccine if Covid-19 is not all that dangerous. These men and women obviously want the protection the vaccine should confer, while insisting that we, the general public, do not really need that protection. I understand.  We all want the service and protection that government agencies are supposed to provide in return for the money they collect. On the other hand, I have read the Constitution of the United States of America and all of the Amendments thereto, and nowhere is there an indication that elected and appointed members of the government are more worthy or needy of service and protection than I.

I am a physician, a healthcare provider.  I am much older than most of the government officials who have already been vaccinated. I have enough risk factors for acquiring Covid-19 to make funeral directors salivate when I walk past their doorways. During the last 10 months I have been exposed to hundreds, indeed thousands, of sick people.  Many spoke to me about immediate family members who died of Covid-19.

Of course, it is unsettling to hear that the person sitting a few feet away and whom you are about to examine has been exposed to a highly infectious agent that will kill you if it is transmitted to you, but that is the job. Over the past decades, I have examined and treated people with pneumonia, meningitis, encephalitis, HIV, tuberculosis, and leprosy. I signed up for this and accepted the risks, just like hundreds of thousands of other healthcare workers, but I never anticipated that the work of saving or improving lives would be hindered by a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  I never anticipated the enormity of the hypocrisy of those who gathered thousands of people in close contact and assured them that they faced no real risk, who assured their minions that they were not putting their children or parents or neighbors at risk, who asked for their votes as a final show of loyalty and trust before being put on ventilators.

As Christmas day, 2020, more than 330,000 Americans have died from this virus.  This is more than all the combat deaths during World War II. It is nearly equal to all the combat deaths in World War I and World War II combined, and there is no armistice in sight. But the “casualty” figures are only a fraction of the damage done by this plague.  Millions have been maimed.  Millions have been permanently disabled. These are not trivial injuries: they are limb amputations and heart attacks and strokes, and there is no Veterans Administration to help with their rehabilitation.

The government has declared this a war, and yet it is throwing parties and inviting thousands of people to the celebrations.  The hospital systems in California and Texas have collapsed.  In many states, patients are being treated in tents in the parking lots.  Even this pathetic addition to the healthcare system is cosmetic, since there has been no expansion of the pool of healthcare providers.  Doctors and nurses cannot be drafted and trained in a matter of months like the men drafted during America’s wars.

To expedite the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines, allow me to make a modest proposal. Put those who have trivialized this scourge, whether they be politicians, pundits, religious leaders, or newscasters, at the end of line.  They need no vaccine protection from a “phony” pandemic.  Take their spouses and young children and move them to the front of the line, for these people, more than most, need protection from the idiocracy with which they are obliged to live. Provide survivor benefits to the families of those who died in the line of duty from Covid-19. This includes not just the hundreds of fallen healthcare workers, but also the police, bus drivers, teachers, taxi drivers, sanitation workers, etc. who continued to work out of necessity or sense of responsibility as the pandemic raged. Let us face reality and make the sacrifices that we need to make to end this scourge. We need to stop throwing parties and organizing rallies and start acting like real soldiers in a real war. Indeed, our lives depend upon it.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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