As a doctor on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am often asked, “Do the COVID-19 vaccines really work?”

Personally, I never doubted their efficacy. I was so confident the shots would prove to be both safe and effective, I immediately signed up to be inoculated as soon as one of the authorized COVID vaccines became available at Beaufort Memorial Hospital (BMH).

Now, after more than 15 months treating COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU), I have empirical evidence to back up my initial assumption.   

At the peak of the pandemic, it was not unusual for most of the beds in the ICU to be occupied by COVID patients, many of them on ventilators. But in recent months, Beaufort Memorial – like most hospitals across the country – has seen a dramatic drop in the number of COVID patients requiring critical care.

More importantly, we have not seen a single COVID patient in the Beaufort Memorial ICU who has received the vaccine. Every COVID patient we have treated in the last several months has been unvaccinated. Clearly, the vaccines are doing their job to reduce the spread of the virus and help prevent serious illness or death in those very rare “breakthrough” cases where vaccinated patients become infected.

It’s hard to argue the success of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the United States when you consider these statistics: On Jan. 10, 2021, there were 312,247 new COVID cases reported in the U.S. compared to 11,767 late last month.

As of late June, 45.2% of the U.S. population are fully vaccinated, while in South Carolina, only 40.6% of residents are. Fortunately, Beaufort ranks No. 5 among the state’s 46 counties for its COVID inoculation rates, according to recent data from the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).

But we can do better. While South Carolina’s numbers are low compared to several other states, the vaccines are already proving to be a lifesaver in our own backyard. But we’d like to treat even fewer COVID patients in the ICU.

As a physician, it’s disheartening to see seriously ill or dying patients, who could have spared themselves and their families the trauma of this deadly disease. Every time I put a patient on a ventilator, I can’t help but wonder if the outcome would have been different if that patient had been vaccinated.

With vaccines now readily available in virtually every community in the state, getting the shot is as easy as walking into your neighborhood Walgreens, CVS or Publix. And it’s free.

Visit VaxLocator.dhec.sc.gov to find locations. At BMH, appointments can be made at the Port Royal Medical Pavilion by visiting BeaufortMemorial.org/VaxPR. Health insurance is not required.

If you have not received your COVID vaccine, I strongly encourage you to get it done. It could save your life.

A board-certified specialist in critical care medicine and pulmonary disease, Dr. Matthew McLaughlin works in the Intensive Care Unit at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. He is part of the Beaufort Memorial Pulmonary Specialists practice that will open in Okatie this fall.