Patient taking pills from nurse (copy)

COVID-19 hospitalizations have surged over the last month as the omicron variant has become dominant and the patient count is now on par with the peak of the December 2020/January 2021 surge. Meanwhile, hospitals are dealing with staffing shortages that are further stressing the system and limiting bed capacity.

When discussing the coronavirus crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and turned the world upside-down, we often speak in terms alluding to warfare — “battling” or “fighting” COVID. For those who don’t work in health care, however, we must remind ourselves that, for those front-line workers, this is not merely a metaphor.

The Checkup: National Guard pitching in at BMC, Fairview Hospital; 845 new Berkshire County cases over weekend

Those in the trenches — the doctors, nurses and staff at hospitals and care facilities across Berkshire County — go to work every day against a viral enemy that tests their mettle and infectiously thins their ranks.

We are deeply thankful for their continuing resilience in the breach of the greatest public health crisis in a century. We’re also glad they’re getting some backup. Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision last month to mobilize the National Guard as a staffing stopgap now seems a prescient move as cases spike and hospitals strain. Members of the Massachusetts Guard are helping to fill the gaps amid a critical shortage of medical workers, including 11 at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and two at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington.

A worldwide pandemic is going to strain health care systems no matter what. Like much of the suffering of the pandemic, however, some of this struggle could have been and can be significantly mitigated. A recent Pittsfield Health Department report shows that unvaccinated city residents were twice as likely to be hospitalized with COVID as vaccinated residents. That disparity is not unique to Pittsfield. Data from other, larger cities show the same trend: The unvaccinated are many times more likely to not only contract COVID but require hospitalization and die because of it.

This is only more evidence that COVID vaccines are remarkably effective at curbing COVID transmission and even more so at preventing severe illness. It also reifies the saddest part of all this: So many have suffered and died who didn’t need to. Our hospitals and those who keep them running are being stretched to the brink partly because the gross politicization of vaccines has hamstrung our use of the best weapon in this viral fight.

If Pittsfield residents who are unvaccinated are twice as likely to be hospitalized as vaccinated residents, then it stands to reason that more universal buy-in on vaccines could have prevented a significant fraction of the hospitalizations now straining the health care system here in the Berkshires.

That conclusion is borne out by comparing the U.S. to other countries with higher vaccination rates and fewer per capita COVID hospitalizations.

To those with well-dug heels in opposition to COVID vaccination as a matter of personal liberty without a thought for how society must deal with a pandemic, this is what the “freedom” so often referenced in abstract looks like on the ground.

It is the freedom to let your local hospital become overrun, to beleaguer health care workers so much they need military assistance, to force those in need of procedures deemed elective to languish in uncertainty. It is one thing to assume additional risk for oneself. It is another thing entirely to unnecessarily increase the societal risk shared by all when acute care access is deeply compromised for anyone needing treatment, COVID-related or otherwise.

As these considerable differences in expected outcome for the vaccinated vs. unvaccinated are playing out in Berkshire hospitals and those across the country, health workers continue to care for us while shouldering an unprecedented burden. They deserve our utmost gratitude. They also deserve backup — not just from the National Guard, but from members of their community who can do their part to relieve some of the strain facing our hospitals. For those in the unvaccinated camp, please take this data to heart, and consider the health care workers and your vulnerable neighbors who needlessly suffer when we mistake recklessness for the pursuit of liberty.