If you’ve ever been transported in an ambulance – and I have – you know that lots of things run through your head as they strap you to the gurney and make a beeline for the hospital.

“I need to relax,” I remember telling myself during my last ride, a few years ago. “These people are well trained and care only about me right now. I need to trust them.”

Here’s a thought, on the other hand, that’s never entered my mind: “Are all these people vaccinated? And if they’re not, can I ask them to kindly get out of my ambulance?”

We’ve all had many reasons to feel disheartened in the 18 months since the COVID-19 pandemic upended every aspect of our lives. Ever-rising case counts, funerals via Zoom and mask wearing, to name but a few, have chipped away at our collective well-being to the point where “back to normal” seems more a wistful fantasy than a tangible goal.

But the latest flap – those employed in emergency medical services and health care who say they’ll quit rather than abide by Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate – adds a once-unthinkable irritant to an already-raw crisis.

Once angels of mercy, they’ve somehow become extortionists.

Once driven by the desire to heal, they’ve fallen under the spell of their own personal politics.

Once a calm in the storm, they now threaten to walk – and thus add fuel to the maelstrom – rather than get a simple shot

Two developments this week illustrate this bizarre pivot away from helping those in dire need and toward unabashed – and uninformed – self-interest.

On Monday, under heavy pressure from Maine’s EMS community, the Maine Board of Emergency Medical Services voted 9-7 to essentially overrule Mills’ mandate that all Maine health workers receive their last dose of COVID-19 vaccine no later than Sept. 17. On what authority the board acted remains a mystery to me.

Then, on Wednesday, an unnamed group of health workers joined forces with the Florida-based hate group Liberty Counsel – so classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center – to sue Mills and Maine’s leading health networks on the grounds that mandating the COVID-19 vaccine violates their religious freedom.

We’ll leave it to the courts to sort all of that out, although my money is solidly on Mills and the hospitals.

Instead, let’s look at the most troubling part of this misguided insurrection. The extortion part.

Underlying all the howling about religious freedom and the sanctity of their own bodies, this minority – and make no mistake, it is just that – is engaged in what is at its core a societal shakedown.

“Do what we say or we’ll quit!” they warn us. “And if you think the system is stressed now, wait until we’re no longer there to save you!”

Two things about that: First, hard as it may be to fill vacancies in already depleted health-care settings, the wheels will keep turning regardless of who stays and who leaves. As the masked surgeon says in the internet meme, “I removed your ego. Looks like it was blocking your reality.”

Second, most if not all the threats I’ve read about in recent days have come not from people who promise, with their names attached, that they will find another occupation rather than comply with the governor’s order. Instead, they come secondhand from worried supervisors who say they’ve “heard” such talk around their workplaces and can’t help but fear the worst.

As someone who’s depended on more than my share of health care in recent years, I’m not buying it.

Looking back on the kind professionals I’ve met in ambulances, emergency rooms and inpatient wards, I simply don’t believe there are that many among them who (a) don’t grasp the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines and the wisdom of obtaining one and (b) would knowingly put their patients at risk by continually showing up to work unprotected.

At the same time, when it comes to those who have huffed and puffed about leaving and not coming back, words are cheap. Giving up a good job with good benefits – hard to come by even in a labor-friendly economy? That’s expensive.

Then there’s the hypocrisy.

Under the Maine Department of Health and Humans Services’ longstanding rules for immunization of health care workers, vaccinations have long been required for measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis B and influenza. That’s right, in order to obtain and hold their various licenses, these people have willingly received shots for everything right down to the latest flu virus.

Yet they quake at prospect of the COVID-19 shot because … why?

Those who argue the vaccines have not received permanent approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are grasping the thinnest of straws: The Pfizer vaccine has now received that approval, and there’s no reason to think the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots won’t as well.

Those who base their religious objections on the use of cell lines derived from fetal cells to develop the COVID-19 vaccines are on equally thin ice. Pope Francis himself has deemed it “morally acceptable” to go ahead and get a shot. What’s more, as Science magazine reported more than a year ago, cell lines developed from elective-abortion tissue have been used as far back as the 1960s to create vaccines for rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A and shingles.

And what about those who say it’s up to them – and only them – to decide what goes into their body?

Fair enough but again off-target. It’s what might come out of their body should they contract the COVID-19 virus – a cloud of microscopic droplets numerous enough to envelop an entire ambulance or ER cubicle in minutes – that’s giving the rest of us the jitters.

What it all comes down to is who’s in charge here.

When I was transported to the hospital for emergency cancer surgery or treatment of a broken back or whatever, I always got the immediate impression that I – the patient who needed immediate help – mattered above all else.

Now, with this small but vocal band who have hyperinflated the vaccine risks or drunk the Trumpian Kool-Aid about this hoax or that conspiracy, that patient-first rule no longer seems to apply. It’s their job, dammit, and if they don’t want to take every precaution to protect themselves and their patients, it’s their decision.

It’s not their decision. It’s our decision.

For those who cannot accept that, no one’s barring the door.


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