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Point of view: The stuff of heroes in the COVID pandemic

Ariel Helms Thames
Ariel Helms Thames

Hurricane Harvey affected a larger area and population than Hurricane Katrina, yet resulted in 100 deaths while Hurricane Katrina resulted in 1,800. One factor that contributed to this 18-fold difference was the heroism of local residents who used their weekend boats to rescue thousands. That heroism was backed by the grit, radical compassion and fearlessness characteristic of both Texans and Oklahomans.

The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed 4,000 times more lives than Hurricane Harvey in the U.S. alone. Now more than ever, we need the grit, radical compassion and fearlessness of Oklahomans, but for COVID-19, these look different.

For COVID-19, grit — that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that’s the lifeblood of Oklahomans — is social distancing. Distancing from people you love to give them a perimeter of safety takes grit. It requires sacrificing your own desires for others’ well-being, but that's the admirable stuff of Oklahomans that I've experienced all my life. The same stuff that beckons Oklahomans to help someone on the roadside without a second thought.

For COVID-19, radical compassion is wearing a mask. By wearing a mask, I protect you more than myself. Imagine my mouth is a hose spewing COVID-containing droplets. Putting a mask over that hose blocks most droplets. When putting a mask on yourself only, droplets can still enter through your eyes. One person forgoing a mask compromises everyone’s safety. Mask mandate or not, we each have a responsibility to protect one another by wearing a mask. Doing so matches the heroism of the civilians in Hurricane Harvey rescuing those in danger of the storm, for wearing a mask saves others from the storm of COVID-19.

For COVID-19, fearlessness is making judgments for the safety of others. Those who cancel large events with costs to themselves for the health of those involved are as courageous as those running toward the storm to help rather than fleeing for safety, and those who give up the warmth of in-person events by going virtual are as strong as those who searched the rising waters.

The next heroic act required of us will be getting vaccinated. As a physician-scientist (M.D. and Ph.D.) in training, I worked with a team to determine guidelines for making a safe, effective vaccine (available on PubMed). I can tell you the authorized vaccines are safe. Though vaccine development seemed fast, these vaccines have been years in the making. Studies that led to current vaccines began in the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 outbreak. I received the vaccine and celebrated when family received theirs. Unforeseen complications of actual COVID infection are far more concerning than that of COVID vaccines.

Even more, vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic. Natural infection does not provide long enough lasting immunity. For vaccination to be successful, we have to win the race against the virus. The more COVID transmission we allow, the more opportunity the virus has to mutate and develop into new strains that can evade existing immunity. This makes the heroic work of social-distancing, mask-wearing, and limiting in-person contact all the more important until everyone can be vaccinated, and Oklahomans, of all people, have the stuff — the grit, radical compassion, and fearlessness — to be the social-distancing, mask-wearing, putting-others-first heroes who save lives in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ariel Helms Thames is an Oklahoman, Cherokee Nation citizen, and student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.