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Dr. William Parker

One does not have to read opinion sections to sense vaccinated people's frustration with unvaccinated people's hesitation or unwillingness to get immunized against COVID-19, an action that would directly help draw society out of the pandemic by causing fewer people to get sick, get hospitalized or die from the disease.

Zach Hayes, a 25-year-old app producer and freelance writer in Hyde Park, is vaccinated, as are most of his close contacts. Hyde Park-Kenwood is a significant exception in vaccination rates compared to its surrounding mid-South Side neighborhoods.

"It's a complicated opinion on a complicated issue that I'm still kind of working out myself, because it is irritating," he said, when asked what he thinks of Americans choosing to forego shots. "It's hard not to be, especially when you see these stories about hospitals filling up and people who need care who can't receive it because of people who are unwilling to be vaccinated."

Vaccination in the United States is falling along partisan and racial lines, with people of color and conservatives less likely to be immunized. Hayes, who is White, said "there are some people who deserve ire" whom he focuses on when he feels irritated and angry: conservatives.

"You seem these news stories about unvaccinated people, whether not just in rural parts of the country but in suburbs and cities all over the place who are taking up space, and the reason specifically they're not vaccinated is a lot of them are right-wingers who are getting all of their information from Facebook and YouTube and Fox News and OANN (One America News Network)," he said. "Those are the folks with whom there's an anger and irritation, and rightly so … in the case where it's a political issue that doesn't have any basis in reality."

But the unvaccinated people Hayes is more proximate to are his South Side neighbors. "That's why I hesitate to make a strong statement or have a super-decisive opinion about it, because those are the majority of the unvaccinated people who I know and am in contact with," he said. "I see it both ways there."

UChicago Medicine's Dr. William Parker, the assistant director of the university's MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, said there is a nationwide sense that unvaccinated people are harming vaccinated people. The delta variant-driven surge of COVID-19 cases would probably be less severe if vaccination rates were higher; there would probably be fewer mask mandates, and going out on a weekend would be easier.

"I'm not trying to be dismissive of that: there is societal harm, and it's in higher levels in the hospital when the unvaccinated crowd out vaccinated people who need routine but medically important care," he said. Care can typically be delayed a couple of weeks, but delaying things like cancer surgery becomes increasingly harmful.

Parker argues that, when there is a shortage of medical resources, the first choice is to save the most lives balanced with making sure everyone has full, equal access to care. After that, there is prioritizing disadvantaged people, as the U. of C. attempted when it prioritized vaccinating its patients in South Side neighborhoods last spring, when vaccine was in short supply.

Tobacco smokers and extreme sports athletes can also burden the medical system by their choices, but not to a degree that they directly harm other people who need medical care. At any rate, it would be gravely unethical, and a violation of federal law, for physicians to deny urgent emergency care to anyone in need of it.

And as a physician with an active Twitter presence (whose opinion pieces have been published in The Washington Post), Parker estimated that 90% of popular anger among the vaccinated on social media is drawn from people blaming unvaccinated people for the still-far-off return to pre-pandemic life. He noted that these people are typically not the medical professionals treating the overwhelmingly unvaccinated people who become hospitalized with COVID-19.

Unvaccinated people may have social circles or sources of information that are not conducive to getting vaccinated. "People also make mistakes and screw up,” Parker said.

"People who end up in an ICU with severe COVID, they're almost all unvaccinated at the University of Chicago and across the country, and the vast majority are intensely regretful for having not gotten the vaccine. They realize they made a mistake. These stories of the Trump or MAGA person who still says that they wouldn't have done it — that's not most people's response to this situation. They recognize that they screwed up and they're paying a very big price, in terms of having severe COVID and having a good chance of dying."

Most of those patients at the U. of C., Parker said anecdotally, are South Side men with female family members yelling at them because they thought they were vaccinated. On the South Side, it is rare for an entire social network like a family to be unvaccinated, as is happening in the South. Oftentimes a family is trying to convince an unvaccinated member to get their shots.

He asked annoyed vaccinated people to put that reality into perspective when asked to put on masks again. But he did say that unvaccinated people are breaking the social contract by their decisions and acknowledged that vaccinated people have a legitimate reason to be angry.

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