If you saw my COVID patients, you’d know we’re still in danger. Don’t be a vaccine straggler.

We are hearing all over America that the COVID-19 pandemic is ending. As deaths and hospitalizations are declining and restrictions loosening, this certainly seems to be true. But please don’t tell that to my 85-year-old patient with cancer. I admitted him to the hospital and diagnosed him with the coronavirus on a Sunday. By Monday, he was one step away from intubation. Turns out, his daughter did not believe in getting her family vaccinated. So he hadn’t received his shots.

And don’t say the United States is done with COVID-19 to the mother from India, who was fully vaccinated with the Astra Zeneca shot and flew here to visit her son. I admitted her shortly after her arrival a month ago and she has now been on a ventilator for three weeks. She recently underwent a tracheostomy – a procedure in which a hole is cut in the neck to allow oxygen to be more easily delivered.

Remarkably, she tested positive for the California variant of COVID-19. This means she did not become infected in India, where the outbreak remains rampant and uncontrolled, but rather here in America – more than likely from an unvaccinated individual.

COVID has a deadly track record

For the 40,000 Americans who are hospitalized for respiratory failure from COVID-19 and the thousands more suffering through the infection at home, the pandemic remains real and thriving. This is why I, and public health officials and doctors across the country, continue to urge those still not vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Every day, vaccines are reaching more people as eligibility and access expand. However, we are still only at around 50% of American adults being fully vaccinated. This is well short of the projected percentage needed to achieve herd immunity. This is due to both access issues, especially among minority and rural populations, as well as continued vaccine hesitancy. Some recent polls indicate that as many as 1 in 5 Americans will not accept a COVID-19 vaccination at all.

Registered nurse Yeni Sandoval caring for a COVID patient in the ICU at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, Calif., on Jan. 3, 2021.

The daughter of my elderly patient with cancer, who almost certainly passed COVID-19 to him, told me she refused vaccination because of the newness and unknown safety of the vaccines. But by now, after hundreds of millions of vaccinations, the shots have a proven track record of safety and efficacy.

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Meanwhile, after hundreds of millions of cases of COVID-19, the virus has a proven track record of deadliness. And that’s not even talking about the many previously healthy, and often young, people suffering from the shortness of breath, fatigue and mental effects of “long COVID.”

Unvaccinated can be fatal to others

With mask restrictions lifting both indoors and outdoors, everyone is going to be more at risk of exposure to the virus. This new guidance applies to only the vaccinated, but it will be impossible to tell who has and hasn’t had their shots. And while I urge you to continue to mask, I am just as urgently telling you to vaccinate.

Scientists have demonstrated reduced transmission after vaccination, and until you are fully vaccinated, you are still a vector to pass this deadly infection to the vulnerable, unvaccinated, and even rarely to the vaccinated – as shown by the uncommon breakthrough infection in my patient visiting from India.

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The vaccines are incredibly effective, but they are not 100%. No vaccine is. If we truly want to be over this pandemic, we need to halt as much transmission as possible by having a larger percentage of Americans getting the shot and achieving herd immunity.

The benefits of the vaccines unequivocally outweigh the risks of getting the virus, both for yourself and to protect others. Get the shot, just as more than 130 million other Americans have. Do not be a vaccine straggler. We are close to the end and I believe we will finish the pandemic soon, but how much death and struggle we experience in this country is up to you.

Dr. Thomas K. Lew (@ThomasLewMD ) is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare. All opinions expressed here are his own.

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