I’m about to have life-saving surgery, but the hospital’s administration refused to ensure I get both COVID-19 doses ahead of time. I meet New York State’s vaccination eligibility requirements. They do say the wing where I’ll be staying is COVID-free, but they overlook my need to get there and back by cab for the surgery and the pre-op visits.
I have excellent doctors who have gone out of their way to support me during this process. However, the hospital denies them any latitude to make a case for a patient’s special circumstances.
As a former program administrator, albeit in an entirely different field, I acknowledge the hospital’s dilemma. If they allowed its doctors and staff to advocate on behalf of certain patients, the system might be swamped with competing claims, all compelling. However, a blanket policy barring all staff from urging full vaccinations in special cases puts patients at risk.
One of the principles law students learn early is that to intervene is to assume responsibility, while not to intervene is to avoid it. Suppose a construction worker falls from scaffolding to the sidewalk. A passerby who stops to help but moves the man in a way that aggravates his injuries could be held accountable. But a sociopath humming a tune as he saunters by has no legal culpability, even if his failure to call the emergency 911 number results in a delay during which the accident victim dies.
Beware, Good Samaritans.
To think that America is on the verge of losing half a million people to COVID-19 is distressing, made even more so by the knowledge that many more are certain to follow. The vaccination launch was bungled in the United States. As a government and society, we failed.
In New York, despite the fame Governor Andrew Cuomo gained as a science-driven contrast to then President Trump’s wishful thinking, the distribution calamity had an additional cause. According to the New York Times, Cuomo jettisoned pandemic plans that state and city health departments had developed over several years in favor of assigning all vaccine distribution to major hospital networks, which had contributed to his political campaigns, even though they had no relevant experience. My instincts tell me that had Cuomo honored the plans that pandemic experts had put in place, the hospitals would have been much better vaccine advocates for patients requiring surgery.
I finally got my first Moderna shot on February 12, thanks to a separate New York City vaccination program and my wife’s pouncing on an open appointment for me when she checked at five o’clock that morning. Unfortunately, the second Moderna shot can’t be administered until the day after my surgery. (Curiously, our hospital gave my wife her first vaccination, and she will have her second a week before my operation.) Had the hospital cooperated with me, I could have had both shots in time. Still, the first shot provides a measure of protection.
The vaccine shortage brings out the me-first survivor in us. There are the lucky few who have had both vaccine doses, the slightly larger group who have had their first, and the vast majority who have had neither.
If I need to push someone out of the way to get myself fully vaccinated, I will. I don’t think of myself as acting this selfishly because I know nothing about the person I’m shoving aside. But when I finally did get my first Moderna shot, it meant an anonymous stranger, someone possibly even more in need, was denied.
Parallel to the COVID-19 crisis has been a renewed outcry over our society’s racial and other “Not in my backyard” hypocrisies. We’ve been here before, and someday we’ll be back again. Maybe we get a little better each time at doing the balancing act between taking care of ourselves and looking after our neighbors—the ones we meet and the millions more we don’t.
Or maybe not.
However wrongly treated I may feel by the hospital’s administration, my advantages over so many others are at least as unjust. For one thing, I have good health insurance coverage.
Also, I haven’t needed to expose myself to significant risk throughout this pandemic. I haven’t needed to go out to earn a living. I have a terrace where I get fresh air and an elliptical machine on which I do my daily thirty minutes’ exercise. My Internet connection enables me to handle several medical appointments as televisits. I have active communications via phone, email and Zoom with friends and colleagues. Happily married, I’m not suffering from the social isolation that is the source of so much anguish.
It does trouble me that the protective cocoon I’ve created against the virus depends on supermarket employees and our neighborhood’s beloved mail deliverer to bring groceries and other essentials, as well as nonessentials. I am also reliant on our apartment building’s equally beloved superintendent and doormen, who come to work every day and deal all day long with a host of visitors.
I expect to survive and, following my surgery, to breathe, literally, more easily than I’ve done in years. But more aware than usual that death is always near, I’ve found myself in a peculiar place of imagining the world going on without me. Presumably, I won’t have any awareness at all when the time comes. If there is an afterlife, it will be a dive into a wholly different place. Either way, I know it would feel sad to leave things inevitably unfinished and, even more than that, to know that ones I love would grieve.
COVID-19 has so far caused five hundred thousand families to experience this premature tragedy.
Little did I know how personally I would feel all this when, last year on March 16, I posted my essay on Eyam, a Derbyshire village that quarantined itself in 1666 to prevent the plague from spreading outside its borders. Early on, the village minister and his wife sent their children to a safer place, but they themselves, like most villagers, stayed in order to spare the neighboring communities. The minister’s wife, a consumptive who nevertheless tended the sick, died from the plague, along with at least one-third of the other inhabitants.
Last week, as I waited in an eleventh-floor office, agitated because I was stuck waiting an hour and a half for a doctor to see me, there was some scuffing and thudding on the windows behind me. It turned out window washers were working there on the outside. I was warm and safe. Those guys were out there on a freezing day with an even colder wind blowing. Had I been them, I would have been terrified.