As the 40-year-old medical director for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Urban Search & Rescue Florida Task Force 1, Dr. Ben Abo spent a horrific month at the scene of the Surfside building collapse.
He has resumed his second job as an emergency room physician just as new virus cases and hospitalizations in Florida have spiked to an all-time high.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” he told The Daily Beast on Monday morning after coming off an overnight shift at a Naples hospital.
And the case numbers are not all that makes the present surge even harder to bear than the previous pandemic high in January. The vast majority of people who fall seriously ill could have protected themselves and others by getting something available to everyone aged 12 and older.
“If more people would have been vaccinated, then we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now,” he said. “This variant, it’s pretty bad. It’s more contagious.”
The relatively few fully vaccinated emergency-room patients have all been well enough to be sent home. Patients who are ill enough for him to admit to the hospital are all what he terms “non-vaxxers.”
“And they are very sick and they’re miserable and they want something done about it, and I keep telling them, ‘You can’t turn back time and get vaccinated,’” Abo said. “A majority say they wish they got vaccinated.”
Besides antibody treatments that may or may not help, he and his fellow doctors can do little more now than they could back when the virus was first sweeping the nation.
“It hasn’t changed,” he said. “Just supportive care.”
The non-vaxxers have some standard lines they utter in the ER.
“The same thing, one after another: ‘I didn’t think I’d get sick’… ‘I don’t believe in it’… ‘I don’t need it’…” Abo reported.
One common question is, “What don’t I feel better? I’m so exhausted.”
His answer is, “Well, because you didn’t get vaccinated and you’ve got COVID.”
He estimated that 90 percent of the patients who arrive at the emergency room have COVID-19. And that too often complicates care for those with other illnesses and injuries.
“I don’t have any place to put them,” he said. “It makes it very difficult.”
Those with COVID include children who are too young to be vaccinated.
“I had a 3-year-old,” he said.
Abo cannot be sure whether the children contracted the virus from unvaccinated parents. He does place the blame on the many adults who chose not to get the shot against the virus before it surged again.
“It’s just horrible,” Abo said. “I’m so sick and tired of it. People were given a way out of this and they didn’t take it.”
He does not let his frustration and anger influence the way he treats patients.
“I’m not not going to take care of them,” he said. “It doesn’t change the care I give. I still care for everybody. But I really pity people.”
He meant the non-vaxxers, who in his view are as craven as drunk drivers in their indifference to the rest of us.
“They can kill themselves,” Abo said. “The problem is they’re ignorant about what they do to other people and how they tax the systems.”
But Abo’s greatest frustration and anger is with the political leaders who seek to further their own fortunes while endangering the people they are supposed to serve.
“I think it is ridiculous that the governors like Florida and Texas continue to make it political and not allow people to make sound judgments,” he said.
On Friday, Florida reported that its weekly record for new COVID-19 cases was up by 50 percent, to 116,477. There had been 409 deaths, more than four times the Surfside toll. But Gov. Ron DeSantis chose that same day to threaten funding cuts for two school districts that were moving to require masks. He further voiced opposition to any other requirement for face coverings or COVID-19 vaccines.
“There will be no mandates in Florida!” he declared.
He also actually said, with a completely straight face, “This is not a partisan issue.”
Florida has ceased releasing daily totals of new cases, but the CDC reported on Saturday that the state had a one-day record of 21,683. The Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee sent out an email that day that read like it had been composed in Mar-a-Lago.
“These politicians and government bureaucrats got a taste of power before, and now they’re hungry for more. These lockdown politicians are globalists who refuse to hold China accountable. They want to control you, and if we don’t stand strong now, who knows what they’ll try to take away next.”
And of course DeSantis was still selling “DON’T FAUCI MY FLORIDA” t-shirts and drink coolers. The merchandise fit with Abo’s view of the position taken by DeSantis and others like him.
“It’s not based on any science,” Abo said.
The DeSantis view also ignores an essential truth: Masks and COVID-19 vaccines protect not just you but also those around you.
In solemnly saying that whether to wear a mask or get the shot is a personal choice, the DeSantis bunch is contending we have the right to endanger others just to avoid a little inconvenience.
And the DeSantis bunch is saying that even as the new cases spike, simply to further their political ambitions.
And that makes the intensifying COVID fight all the more discouraging for those on the front line.
“It’s just so hypocritical,” Abo said on Monday morning. “All they are is selfish.”
He added, “If they really want to do the argument that people have freedom of choice, then why don’t I have the freedom to protect my children, to protect my family? By them saying everybody should have a choice, they’re taking away our choice.”
Abo said this as he was headed from the hospital in Naples to a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue/Urban Search & Rescue Florida Task Force 1 debriefing on the Surfside mission. One major topic would be the possible effects of the toxins in the dust and smoke the first responders encountered while being the opposite of politicians: placing themselves at risk with the hope of saving others.
“A lot of bad stuff,” Abo said of the toxins. “And now COVID’s back and worse than before.”
In the rubble of Surfside, Abo and his fellow first responders wore full respirators to protect themselves.
As the virus spikes, we should at least wear a mask indoors to protect everyone around us.
And protecting others is also why everyone who can get the shot should do so at the earliest opportunity.
The personal choice is ultimately whether or not to be a decent human being.