Florida doctors "walk out" to protest the strain on hospitals created by the unvaccinated

Breathless headlines are circulating this afternoon about what happened here, as if dozens of doctors had decided to strike and let their patients fend for themselves.

Which would be an unconscionable breach of medical ethics. It’s one thing to take vaccination status into account when deciding how to prioritize patients in a triage situation, but doctors are never supposed to outright deny treatment. Patients are often responsible for their own health misery, after all. If the unvaccinated can’t be treated because they courted infection, the obese can’t be treated because they courted heart disease and smokers can’t be treated because they courted lung cancer.

Everyone gets care, even when they’re blameworthy.

The “walk out” here was just a short press conference held by 75 or so doctors from across Palm Beach County who were off-duty. It was symbolic, a protest designed to call media attention to the fact that Florida’s hospitals are overwhelmed even though that was almost entirely preventable. “We are exhausted. Our patience and resources are running low and we need your help,” said one who addressed the media. The position they’re in is like a city fire department having to race around town nonstop putting out fires because a third of the population suddenly insisted on spending its days playing with matches and gasoline.

At a certain point, they don’t have enough trucks to reach every fire in time. Some will end up burning uncontrollably, including ones that weren’t set by the accidental arsonists.

The point should be stressed that the unvaccinated have essentially prioritized their own care over that of others by refusing to get vaccinated. They’re not unique in that regard: Anyone who exposes themselves to serious health complications through their behavior, like the smoker or the overeater, is risking a catastrophe that might eventually take a hospital bed away from someone else who needs one due to a crisis not of their own making. What’s different about the unvaccinated is that they’ve continued to assume that risk at a moment when they know hospitals are overloaded and there’s a free shot available to them that would solve the problem, both individually and at a community level if enough of them got jabbed. Smokers and overeaters unfortunately aren’t in a position medically to eliminate their health risks in the span of a few weeks. The unvaccinated are.

Go figure that doctors are exasperated with them for refusing, knowing that every sick patient they needlessly encounter raises their own chances of a serious breakthrough infection. Send a firefighter into enough burning houses and eventually he’ll end up in a situation where he can’t get out.

Speaking of avoidable contagion, the people at Kinsa noticed a trend over the weekend: “Cases in South Dakota have accelerated at the fastest rate in the country after more than half a million people came together for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally last weekend.” Sturgis was one of two notable mass gatherings that happened this month, the other being the Lollapalooza concert in Chicago. The concert required proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test for admission, though, and took place outdoors. The result was just a few hundred cases. Sturgis had no such requirements and takes place in both indoor and outdoor venues. Do we have a superspreader outbreak in progress?

It’s too soon to say. Kinsa is right that South Dakota’s cases have risen at the highest rate in America over the last 14 days. Its hospitalization rate was the fastest-rising of any state in the country too. But SD was starting from an extremely low baseline, partly because the state’s population is so small and partly because last year’s COVID rampage there doubtless created a high degree of population immunity. Here are the top five states/territories measured by percentage increase in cases:

They’re all small states with low rates of COVID, which means even a slight increase will have an outsized impact when measuring by percentage. A state which sees an increase from one case to five cases would have a whopping, and very misleading, 500 percent increase, right? So, no, there’s no Sturgis superspreader effect yet.

On the other hand, the county where Sturgis is located now has the highest positivity rate of any in South Dakota that’s dealing with more than 10 cases. (It also has a vaccination rate of just 26 percent,) And the state case curve shows that SD was at rock bottom for the entire summer until August 10, which was in the middle of the 10-day Sturgis festival:

The hopeful, and interesting, outcome here will be if the bump in cases peters out and SD goes back to nearly zero cases despite the Sturgis gathering. That’ll leave scientists wondering whether the state really has reached a meaningful threshold of herd immunity after last year’s brutal waves. Fingers crossed.