By Mawata Kamara, RN

Vaccines have been around for decades. As a registered nurse, I know how vaccines work. When you are vaccinated, your body can then create antibodies and fight the disease or virus. So my decision to get the Covid-19 vaccine in December was a very easy choice. I was pregnant back then and to me, my options were: one, get a vaccine that is very highly effective at preventing serious illness or death from Covid, or two, get Covid and possibly die.

I decided I would rather take my chances with the vaccine than without it. On the second day vaccines were offered to healthcare workers, I was in line.

I work in the emergency room at San Leandro Hospital in Alameda County, and I also work occasionally in the intensive care unit at Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock, which is in the Central Valley. Over the past few weeks, I’ve sadly seen a dramatic increase in Covid-19 patients.

The ER is so crowded. I’ve seen a mix of people who are really sick with Covid and are admitted — and many who are there to get tested because they are having some Covid symptoms, such as shortness of breath. They are scared. Some people are well enough to get tested and go home. They are usually vaccinated and we call them the “swab and go.” In Alameda County, as of Aug. 11, 72.5 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. This means that more than a quarter of the county is not fully vaccinated. That is a large percentage of unvaccinated people. And nationally, only half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.

And now we know breakthrough infections are happening. Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not tracking that data unless the infections result in hospitalization or death. We know that vaccinated people can readily transmit the virus. We need to have the most comprehensive data so we can stop the spread of Covid. National Nurses United has been continuously calling on the CDC to track all breakthrough cases. It’s also important to understand that data about breakthrough infections does not mean that vaccines are not effective. Covid vaccines are very effective at doing what they were designed to do — prevent serious illness or death.

I’ve talked to patients about why they did not get vaccinated. Some say, “We don’t know the long-term effects of the vaccine” or “I don’t want to be a guinea pig; the vaccines are experimental and not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.” Well, we also don’t know the long-term effects of Covid. Meanwhile, vaccines have a proven success record of mitigating or eradicating communicable diseases such as polio. And hundreds of millions of people around the world have received Covid vaccines. We know they are effective at preventing serious illness and hospitalization, even against the very infectious Delta variant.

The virus that causes Covid, SARS-CoV-2, is relatively new and we are still learning about how it affects the body. The better odds are to get vaccinated rather than risk getting severe Covid or long Covid, living with recurring Covid symptoms for months on end. And please, let’s not forget that children still cannot get vaccinated because they are too young. I do not want my young daughter or my baby to get Covid. We now have a steadily increasing number of children who are struggling with long Covid. This development is horrifying.

We must do everything possible to stop the spread of Covid. I didn’t consider myself to be privileged before, but then I realized that as a nurse I am privileged to know about something that could save my life. We must have more public education so people have a better understanding of how vaccines work. We need to make it easier for people to get vaccinated and bring the vaccines to where people work and live. We need more mobile community clinics to reach people who have not been able to make an online appointment and take time off from work to get vaccinated.

We know that nurses are not vaccine hesitant. The latest data from the CDC shows that the vast majority of nurses, about 92 percent, get the influenza vaccine every year. Nurses understand that vaccination is a critically important part of a comprehensive public health program for infection control. We strongly believe all eligible people should be vaccinated, while respecting the need for medical and religious accommodations.

Science shows that a multiple-measures approach to infection control is the most effective, and vaccination is just one, albeit critical, component. In addition to encouraging vaccination, we must also follow proven and effective infection control measures, including universal masking, robust and routine testing, contact tracing and notification, proper quarantining, social distancing, and diligent hygiene. And in health care facilities, we must protect nurses and other health care workers by following all of these infection control measures I just mentioned, as well as having optimal, single-use personal protective equipment, proper isolation of Covid and suspected Covid patients, safe staffing levels, and ventilation. All of these measures are equally as important for other settings that employ essential workers, including retail, grocery, food industry, and more.

Vaccination, as well as following other infection control measures, will help prevent a fall surge. All the patients I’ve seen with severe Covid symptoms are not vaccinated. I see Covid patients with comorbidities, medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma that put them at greater risk for severe Covid. Some of them did not understand how vaccines work and didn’t trust it. Unfortunately, with so much misinformation out there, some people are not making decisions based on science. The situation is so bad that the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory warning about the threat of health misinformation about Covid vaccines.

I am so very sad to see patients in the ICU who are completely exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically. They are struggling to cope with Covid. They do not want to be on oxygen in a hospital bed. I’m sure if these patients had been vaccinated, their situation would be different. They would not be in the hospital. Emanuel Medical Center is in Stanislaus County, where only 41 percent of the population are fully vaccinated, as of August 10. This means that nearly 6 out of 10 people are unvaccinated in the county.

In the beginning of the pandemic, Covid patients were older. But most of our older population is now fully vaccinated. Now I see younger patients with Covid. That’s the big change from last year. But what’s even worse is that the virus is wiping out generations of people. It’s not just the grandparents. Now it’s the parents and their children.

The pandemic is still here. You can’t know if you will be the person who will get sick enough to be hospitalized with Covid or the one who gets mild symptoms. So please get vaccinated and protect yourself, your family, and your neighbors. It might save your life and the lives of your loved ones.

National Nurses United, with more than 175,000 members nationwide, is the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in U.S. history.