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We have now reached that phase of the pandemic where genuine panic could quickly set in.

You sense it around the world as governments struggle with a COVID-19 variant that is making more people sick and sending greater numbers to hospitals.

Everywhere you look, it seems, health authorities are declaring emergencies or, as they are known in Britain, “major incidents.” This is where the number of admissions is spiking dramatically at the same time as hospitals are straining under significant staff shortages.

These shortages are being caused by doctors and nurses and other front-line workers getting COVID-19 themselves as well as people just leaving the field because of stress, burnout and the trauma caused by unthinkable abuse and mistreatment by members of the public. (Think anti-vaccine mandate protests being held outside hospitals.)

Now hospitals everywhere are reviewing protocols for treatment; who gets priority over someone else. Also known as: who lives and who dies.

Canada has not been spared from this aspect of the pandemic. Hospitals across the country have felt the burden of overtaxed emergency rooms and intensive care units at the height of earlier waves. But Omicron is next level. While it’s not as virulent as the Delta variant, it can still kill. What makes it so dangerous is its high transmissibility. It will make greater numbers of people sick than previous iterations of the virus, and because of that, it will put a bigger strain on hospitals.

Particularly thanks to the unvaccinated. While it’s true that Omicron is sending more vaccinated people to the hospital, unvaccinated people are more likely to be hospitalized and the majority of COVID ICU patients are unvaccinated.

The reserves of empathy nurses and doctors must need to demonstrate the same level of care and kindness to the unvaccinated showing up in medical distress as someone who is there with a problem they may not have been able to prevent is unfathomable. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to phone someone waiting for surgery and have to tell them it is being cancelled because of the high number of Omicron-related admissions the hospital is handling.

Many – myself included – wonder why people who have willfully chosen not to get vaccinated, people who are largely responsible for filling ICUs to beyond capacity, should get priority over someone who is fully vaccinated but is in need of medical attention nonetheless.

For a bad heart, say. Or cancer. Or they’ve badly injured a knee or a back. Ontario Health announced this week that between 8,000 to 10,000 surgeries a week will have to be cancelled for the foreseeable future to deal with the Omicron crush. Can you imagine how devastating that news would be to receive, especially if you’ve been waiting for months?

How is it fair that people who are making the decision not to get vaccinated (and don’t have a legitimate medical reason for not doing so) and who are making an outsized contribution to the distress we are witnessing at our hospitals, are being moved to the front of the line ahead of others who have got vaccinated.

And yet here we are, put in the contemptible position of having to plead with these vaccine holdouts every day to do the right thing. Overwhelmed hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio, for instance, took out a full-page ad in the The Plain Dealer newspaper that simply said one word: Help! And by that they meant: Get vaccinated.

Sure, we can continue to blame governments for their botched handling of various aspects of the pandemic. And some of it is truly deserved. Yet, we don’t seem to be as angry with those who refuse to get vaccinated, who are contributing massively to the prolongation of this crisis. At what point do we say enough is enough? If you chose to make a conscious decision not to get vaccinated, then you must be aware that it comes with repercussions. And one of them could be around medical care. If you put yourself in harm’s way, then you will pay a price, which might be a lack of space for you at your local hospital.

We have no idea how much longer we are going to be facing lockdowns and other restrictions because of this virus. We do know that vaccines are our way out of this. Not just for us here in Canada, but around the world.

The longer we drag this out, the longer the virus will hang around, and the longer it hangs around the greater the chance there is of another new strain of the disease emerging.

My patience for vaccine holdouts reached an end a long time ago. Now with our hospitals in crisis again, it’s time we got far tougher with these people.

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