PROVO, Utah – As Mindy Greene spent another day in the COVID intensive care unit, listening to the whirring machines that now breathed for her 42-year-old husband, Russ, she opened her phone and tapped out a message.
"We did not get the vaccine," she wrote on Facebook. "I read all kinds of things about the vaccine and it scared me. So I made the decision and prayed about it and got the impression that we would be ok."
They were not.
Her husband, the father to their four children, was now hovering between life and death, tentacles of tubes spilling from his body. The patient in the room next to her husband's had died hours earlier. That day, July 13, Greene decided to add her voice to an unlikely group of people speaking out in the polarized national debate over vaccination: the remorseful.
"If I had the information I have today we would have gotten vaccinated," Greene wrote. Come what may, she hit "send."
Amid a resurgence of coronavirus infections and deaths, some people who once rejected the vaccine or simply waited too long are now grappling with the consequences, often in raw, public ways. A number are speaking from hospital beds, at funerals and in obituaries about their regrets, about the pain of enduring the virus and watching unvaccinated family members die gasping for breath.
"I have such incredible guilt," Greene said one morning as she sat in the fourth-floor lobby outside the ICU at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, which looks out to the mountains where her family once went hiking and four-wheeling. "I blame myself still. Every day."
The recent surge of infections and hospitalizations among unvaccinated people has brought the grim realities of COVID-19 crashing home for many who thought they had skirted the pandemic. But now, with anger and fatigue piled up on all sides, one question is whether their stories can actually change any minds.
Some people hospitalized with the virus still vow not to get vaccinated, and surveys suggest that the majority of unvaccinated Americans are not budging. Doctors in COVID units say some patients still refuse to believe they are infected with anything beyond the flu.
"We have people in the ICU with COVID who are denying they have COVID," said Dr. Matthew Sperry, a pulmonary critical care physician who has been treating Greene's husband. "It doesn't matter what we say."
COVID hospitalizations in Utah have risen 35% over the past two weeks. Sperry said ICUs across the 24-hospital system where he works are 98% full.
Still, some hospitals swamped with patients in largely conservative, unvaccinated swaths of the country have begun to recruit COVID survivors as public health messengers of last resort.
Theirs are "scared straight" stories for a pandemic that has thrived on misinformation, fear and hardened partisan divisions over whether to get vaccinated.
"People are creating news from their hospital beds, from the wards," said Rebecca Weintraub, an assistant professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. "It's the accessibility of the message: 'I didn't protect my own family. Let me help you protect yours.' "
In Springfield, Mo., where coronavirus cases spiked this summer, Russell Taylor sat in a hospital gown, an oxygen cannula draped across his face, to offer a pro-vaccine testimonial in a hospital video. "I don't see how I could not get it now," he said.
A Texas man who underwent a double-lung transplant after contracting the virus made a plea on local television for others to get vaccinated.
In Utah, Greene said her husband had left the family's vaccination decisions in her hands. She initially planned to get the shot as soon as her next-door neighbor, a physician, got his.
But she had concerns about the vaccine, and found plenty of reasons to hesitate when she scrolled through social media or talked with anti-vaccine friends. "You need to watch this," one wrote to her.
Clicking on a few links took her down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories touted by anti-vaccine attorneys and YouTubers, and videos in which anti-vaccine doctors and nurses decried the COVID-19 shots as "bioweapons."
COVID crashed into the family's world in late June when their two oldest sons brought the virus home from a church camp where nine boys got infected. The virus swept through the family. Then came the day that Greene's husband, a hunter who hiked across mountains, had to be rushed to the hospital when his oxygen levels cratered.
Now, they measure time in "COVID days." Greene wakes up dry-heaving many mornings. Her four children stay home while she goes to the hospital, unable to tell their dad about dance class or smashing a hit deep into the outfield during a baseball game.
Greene begins her hospital visits with a spiritual reading and ends each night by gathering their children — Hunter, 18; Easton, 15; Betty, 13, and Rushton, 8 — to talk about their father and the prayers he needs.