The delta variant of COVID-19 is surging across the country, filling Utah hospitals with mostly unvaccinated patients battling the disease.
The new emergency prompted top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to issue yet another, even more forceful, message last week to members to wear masks and get vaccinated.
Dr. Samuel Brown, a Latter-day Saint intensive care unit physician-scientist at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, is witnessing the pandemic’s devastating toll, up close and all too personally.
Brown, who doubles as a religious historian, is the author of a new book, “Where the Soul Hungers: One Doctor’s Journey From Atheism to Faith.” In these excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast, he shares his thoughts about the pandemic, his approach to unvaccinated patients and the church’s response:
How has your perspective changed from the beginning of the pandemic to today?
Everybody that’s been treating patients with COVID or working on COVID has had a kind of shift. And there is a part of the transition that’s been helpful and a part that’s been hard. The helpful part is when it first came to be, we weren’t entirely sure how it was spread. What was the risk of being outside? How close could you be or not be? How much did you have to wash your hands? And we actually started out almost thinking it transmitted like Ebola, which, thanks be to God, it’s not that. The risk of getting infected by treating a patient as long as you’re wearing these respirators, the fancier version of the masks, is essentially zero. And that’s been reassuring….And there’s also a reassurance that comes from having the vaccine.
...The harder part is the sense of betrayal that I think most health care workers feel right now. They feel like they’ve given their heart and soul and their sanity to treating and taking care of people with COVID, and ...to see that we couldn’t even hit 50% [vaccinated] when it was free and available, well-vetted vaccines, excellent safety profiles, high efficacy, feels like a kind of betrayal. For Latter-day Saints who are health care workers, there’s this extra complicated nuance that you’ll hear language of a shared faith tradition used to motivate or justify behaviors that just feel like they’re going the exact wrong direction, like if Jesus is hiking up the hill during the pandemic, this language seems to be running down the hill as fast as you possibly can. ...Now what I think is so hard is the sense of exhaustion. Haven’t we already been here? Couldn’t we have learned a lesson?
What has been your approach to unvaccinated patients?
I’ve been working hard at [seeing the divine light in] all sorts of people who disagree with me or make bad decisions or end up in a self-harm situation. ...My calling, as I understand it, as a God believer, is to love them and try to serve them and not ... to shame and blame, but to see how I can ease their suffering. It’s really only like 5% [of unvaccinated COVID patients] that are just totally partisan, culture war-angry, [insisting], “I will never vaccinate. How dare anybody even mention that?” In my experience, 95% are so sad that they made a mistake and didn’t get vaccinated. You’ve got to honor that and then think about how you make something beautiful out of something bad. So what I’ve started doing the last few weeks is to say, “Who are two people that you think could be persuaded to be vaccinated based on the fact that this COVID has landed you in the hospital and is threatening your life? What good can we take from this tragedy? And, specifically, who can we help get vaccinated now that you know personally how terrible COVID can be and how important it is to be vaccinated?” And my experience has been that they brighten up a little bit and it gets them thinking.
What do you think about some liberals who are mad at the unvaccinated?
The left has done such a good job of helping us stop blaming victims over the recent decades. It’s one of the core messages. Don’t blame victims, work with them to make their world better. And then when I hear people attacking or shaming and blaming people whose lives are threatened by a horrifying respiratory virus out of a decision they made out of anxiety and worry and fear, that just feels like victim blaming to me. I don’t see how you can connect those dots of being a good liberal and simultaneously blaming people who have COVID.
What did you think of the governing First Presidency’s recent message to wear face masks and get vaccinated?
I thought it was reasonable. The fact that it came as late as it did told me that there is some really intense cultural war being waged right now. For me, to see this pretty mild, honestly unobjectionable statement coming as late as it did made me sort of realize how much they’re struggling, in terms of U.S. membership feeling adamant that this is somehow a plot of I-don’t-know-what nefarious actors to get these vaccines into people….Most people will follow social cues from trusted authorities. And so my sense is that this statement will lead to increases in vaccination and mask-wearing, and I hope will detoxify some of that discussion around those topics.