Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #173. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Dec. 3, 2021; in print Dec. 5

Imagine a historian in 2121 researching life in St. Cloud a century earlier. She picks up the Nov. 21, 2021 St. Cloud Times, with its front-page headline, “A System Strained: ER physician details fatigue, long waits, lack of beds in COVID-19 surge,” and an accompanying story, “11 Central Minnesotans are among COVID-19 dead last week as toll passes 9,150.”

The historian will, of course, have read widely in order to provide context.

  • She will have learned about the extraordinary medical advances of the 20th century — life expectancy in the U.S. jumped from 47 years in 1900 to 77 in 2021; smallpox and polio obliterated; transplants; antibiotics; MRIs. The list goes on and on. The beneficial consequences of science were staggering.
  • She might have watched “MASH” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” While not skirting the doctors’ and nurses’ foibles, the shows make clear that they are totally committed to the well-being of their patients. And she’d have learned that in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, health workers — physicians, nurses, orderlies, indeed the whole medical community — were widely hailed as heroes, the most “essential” of “essential workers.”
  • She will have discovered that Christian churches were plentiful in Central Minnesota, and official statements of churches – especially the Roman Catholic, with its authoritative tradition of social justice teaching, but true of many other denominations as well — would seem to have favored policies and attitudes focused on the common good.

Here is where she pauses, puzzled. How could people who were beneficiaries of science, who had sung the praises of medical personnel, and many of whom claimed a religious identity that puts the common good — the welfare of all — ahead of concern for oneself, have behaved in a way to prompt this opening paragraph in the Times story?

“An influx of COVID-19 patients, most of them unvaccinated, is contributing to long waits for treatment, forcing CentraCare physicians to delay care and even treat patients in the emergency department while waiting for open beds, said Dr. Kurt Belk, St. Cloud Hospital's medical director.”

“Most of them unvaccinated.” Early in the pandemic there was near-universal hope for a “miracle,” a vaccine that would prevent the disease, or at least its most devastating consequences – intubation, even death. Scientists delivered in record time.

And yet so many people refuse to get vaccinated. At the time of Dr. Belk’s remarks, the percentages of one-dose and fully-vaccinated residents of Stearns County (59/54%), Benton County (43/39%), and Sherburne County (47/43%) were dismal.

Reasons vary. Some are genuinely afraid. Often heard, however, is one form or other of the “freedom” argument. Common good be damned.

"‘[The vaccine] truly decreases your risk of hospitalization, which then is going to free up a bed [for] somebody who needs it,’ Belk said. ‘And we don't ever want to get to a situation where we're rationing care, having to decide who gets admitted and gets the treatment and who doesn't. That would be a horrible position. Can you imagine being that human being or that committee that makes that decision?’"

Those who refuse the vaccine are not only “imagining” putting medical personnel in that horrible position. They are actually, actively — even if unintentionally — putting them in that horrible position, and increasing their own chances of hospitalization and worse.

Even short of having to decide who lives and who dies, the medical personnel who serve us are being subjected to totally unnecessary stress.

Belk summed it up: “physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.” “You see families say goodbye because you might have to intubate somebody, and they won't be able to talk to them, sometimes for weeks, because they won't be able to speak. And those are hard on the nursing staff and on the physicians and on the respiratory therapists and on everyone. It's the whole team that feels it.”

The historian 100 years from now is perplexed at the repudiation by many of the miracle that nearly everybody had hoped for, with the consequent strain on the health care system.

Reading more widely, she would discover that in the culture at large there were people who proclaimed themselves better qualified than scientists to make health care decisions. She would learn that distrust of government spilled over into actual disdain for medical personnel.

And she would find out that in some distortions of Christianity “freedom” trumped the common good. She would wonder why all Christians didn’t acknowledge the gospel as stated unequivocally by Pope Francis: “Vaccination is a simple but profound way of promoting the common good and caring for each other, especially the most vulnerable.”

When people refuse vaccination they are scorning a miracle, sneering at the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion of heroes, and, if they are Christian, mocking a bedrock principle.