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‘This is a Different Beast’
Margaret Fowler
/ Categories: Fall 2021

‘This is a Different Beast’

A local primary care doctor discusses vaccines, social responsibility and the burden on healthcare workers.

Dr. Robert L. Smith (pictured above) of F.F. Thompson Hospital’s Finger Lakes Family Care in Canandaigua has been having some tough discussions in recent months with patients who are not vaccinated against COVID-19, and he is still trying to figure out how to reach some of them regarding the importance of getting the shot.

“It’s easier to get people to quit smoking than it is to get some people to take this vaccine,” said Dr. Smith, Chief of the Department of Outpatient Medicine for Thompson.

Sometimes, he said, political views are factored into a decision regarding the vaccine, perhaps along with a mistrust of government agencies like the CDC and FDA.

Other patients had been waiting for FDA approval of the vaccine, but after Pfizer received full approval in August – replacing the initial emergency use authorization – a number of them still did not get vaccinated. Dr. Smith said this may be because they don’t feel a sense of urgency about protecting themselves against the virus.

“They don’t live it and they don’t breathe it every day like we do in health care,” he said.

Dr. Smith wishes patients would see the urgency that he sees and come to terms with the fact that the pandemic is far from over.

“This is the delta variant,” he said. “This is not the COVID of 2020. This is a different beast.”

Some patients are skeptical of vaccines in general, but Dr. Smith tells them vaccines have been around for decades, are safe, and are effective in preventing major illnesses.

By the same token, he reminds patients of the trust their relationship is based on. They trust him with many other matters regarding their health, so he encourages them to have that same trust when it comes to the COVID vaccine.

Healthcare professionals, he added, would much rather answer their patients’ questions and attempt to address their concerns through candid conversations than have their patients get their information from social media or other media outlets.

“We’re the medical experts here to serve you, and here to take care of the community,” he said. “We think the best way to do that is to get your vaccine.”

Dr. Smith noted that when the COVID-19 vaccines first became available, they were believed to be 96-percent effective, so it was expected that some vaccinated people would still test positive for the virus. He does know of a few vaccinated people who have tested positive but none who have gotten seriously ill, and noted that nationwide, the vast majority of people in the hospital with severe COVID are unvaccinated. In fact, according to a CDC study published Sept. 10, data collected this spring and summer, showed unvaccinated people were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die of COVID.

 “The vaccine is doing exactly what it was touted to do in the first place, and exactly what we want it to do – taking the pressure off our hospitals,” he said.

Early in the pandemic, the community came through for Thompson Health with pizzas, boxed lunches, parades past the hospital and even a flyover to let healthcare workers know they were appreciated. Now, Dr. Smith said, many of those same healthcare workers heralded as heroes are facing burnout. This is only expected to worsen as a number of their coworkers leave their positions due to federal and state vaccine regulations.

That’s another reason to get the vaccine, as far as he’s concerned – a sense of social responsibility among members of the community.

“We need their support now,” he said, “by doing things that minimize trips to the hospital and just doing the right thing.”