Intensive Care Unit

Your Right To Get COVID Stops Where Our ICU Begins

This post is on behalf of all physicians, nurses, and respiratory therapists who work in U.S. intensive care units.

To all anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers:

For months, you have been telling us that you deserve the freedom to choose: to choose whether or not to get a COVID-19 vaccine and to choose whether or not to wear a face mask in public places. In other words, you have been saying that it is your right to get infected with COVID and that measures to prevent it are an assault to your freedoms as an American. Although it is true that you do have the right to do a lot of dangerous things that jeopardize your health and your lives, you do not have the right to do dangerous things that jeopardize our health and our lives. And when you get COVID, you are doing just that.

  • You have the right to smoke cigarettes. But when you get lung cancer, your metastases are not contagious to the oncologist.
  • You have the right to promiscuous unprotected sex. But when you get gonorrhea, your sexually-transmitted disease is not contagious to the nurse in the emergency department who takes care of you.
  • You have the right to use intravenous heroin and fentanyl. But when you overdose, your respiratory failure is not contagious to the respiratory therapist.

You say you have the freedom to choose to not wear face masks and to not get a vaccination. But as healthcare workers, we do not have the freedom to refuse to take care of you when you become infected with COVID and need us to care for you in our ICUs.

Currently in the United States, 30% of all patients in our ICUs have COVID. In many parts of Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and other southern states, the majority of patients in ICUs have COVID. Although nearly two-thirds of American adults have gotten a COVID vaccine, 98% of all of the hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated. In many U.S. cities, there are no empty ICU beds left and that means that when a patient comes in with a heart attack, pneumonia, or a stroke, we do not have an ICU bed to care for that patient.

Your self-professed freedom to get COVID means that we have to work extra shifts, sometimes 24 or 36 hours straight, because there are too many COVID patients in our ICUs to take care of with our normal number of staff. Every time we walk through the door into an ICU room to care for a patient with COVID, we are exposing ourselves to the deadly contagious virus and we are risking our lives to take care of that patient.

In the beginning of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, we worked tirelessly when our ICUs were overwhelmed with sick and dying COVID patients. We did it because it was our duty to take care of all of the innocents who could not prevent their viral infections. It is what we signed up for. The emotions of sadness, fear, and exhaustion that we felt in the summer of 2020 have been replaced by the emotion of resentment because in the summer of 2021, almost all COVID ICU admissions were avoidable.

Like the intravenous drug users who occupy beds in our ICU because of an overdose, you are occupying our ICU beds because of your bad life choices. Unlike those intravenous drug users who will wake up and get out of our ICUs after a day or two, you will spend an average of 14 days in our ICUs and 20% of you will die in our ICUs. During those 14 days, you are taking up beds needed by other patients with diseases that were not caused by bad life choices.

The average cost of a hospitalization for COVID is $20,000 and if that hospitalization includes admission to the ICU, the cost is 5-10 times that much. In July 2021 alone, the hospitalization costs of unvaccinated COVID patients in the U.S. was $1.5 billion. Those costs are paid by health insurance companies and passed on to all of the rest of us by increased health insurance premiums and Medicare payroll taxes. In other words, your self-declared freedom to get COVID is paid for by higher insurance costs to those of use who got vaccinated and wear face masks. We are tired of paying for your bad life choices.

We watch on the news as you angrily demonstrate against vaccines and face masks at our statehouses. We read on social media about your delusions that vaccines cause disease. We hear you call us fascists because you are required to wear face masks when you enter the restaurants we eat in, stores we shop in, and hospitals we work in. And all the time, we are desperately trying to save your lives when you get sick from COVID infections that you could have prevented. It is as if Satan has taken over your minds and now our entire country needs an exorcism.

But we will continue to take care of you in our hospitals and in our intensive care units. The code of ethics that we are bound by dictates that we must. We only wish that your code of ethics was as virtuous.

August 29, 2021

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital