Comment: Those with compromised immune systems need our help

Those undergoing cancer treatment and others can’t risk getting covid. We can help protect them.

By Jon Gluck / Special To The Washington Post

In the fall of 2002, I slipped on the ice when I was leaving work one night and twisted my hip. The pain never fully went away, but I imagined it was just a pulled muscle or torn cartilage. I was 37 years old and healthy. What else would it be?

An MRI later showed a tumor on my hip that turned out to be the presenting symptom of multiple myeloma, a rare bone-marrow cancer. At the time, the average life expectancy for people newly diagnosed with the condition was a year and a half.

I have since undergone four rounds of radiation, two surgeries, two rounds of chemotherapy and a course of immunotherapy, and am currently undergoing an experimental treatment that has brought my disease under control. But the ordeal has left me significantly immunocompromised, making me one of the estimated 10 million Americans who fit that description. And the omicron variant is posing a particularly alarming threat to us.

Omicron is spreading at a record-setting pace at the same time that covid-19 fatigue is setting in and established safety protocols are going by the wayside. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reduced the number of days it says people should isolate after testing positive for the virus, a decision that seemed more motivated by political and economic concerns than safety. This month, the Supreme Court blocked President Biden’s attempt to mandate that large employers require their workers to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. Even as the disease is spreading at an unprecedented rate, we’re doing less to combat it. That’s a dangerous combination, especially for the vulnerable.

I understand why anyone who is healthy, or better still, healthy and vaccinated, would be eager to let down their guard. Early data suggest omicron is less likely than other variants to lead to hospitalizations and deaths, particularly in immunized people. And who wants to live with pandemic restrictions for one second longer than they have to?

The problem with that calculus, though, is that it doesn’t account for everyone. As more and more people decide to just live with the virus, or even try to deliberately contract it to “get it over with,” the immunocompromised and other vulnerable populations are being forgotten.

Like many immunocompromised people, I’ve been double vaccinated and have received a booster shot but was only able to achieve a limited level of covid antibodies. (Both cancer and cancer treatments can inhibit the body’s immune response.) Also, my underlying immune system — the defense network that fights all diseases, covid and otherwise — is diminished. Since the pandemic began, I’ve been receiving monthly infusions to help address that, too, but those treatments haven’t been entirely effective, either. This has forced many of us to take more precautions since the beginning, and worry more about our health and safety than others. But in some ways, things have gotten worse for us, as regular life returns despite the persistence and evolution of the virus. Just the other day, my family and I decided we should wear masks in our own home. My son is in school in person and many of his classmates have recently contracted covid.

People’s objections to government shutdowns, school closings, masks, vaccines, testing and the like have been well-documented. They don’t want the government to tell them what to do. They have questions about the safety of the vaccines. Testing is inconvenient and uncomfortable. And so on. To be honest, I’m not as orthodox about those things as you might imagine. Widespread shutdowns and school closures at this point, in my opinion, do more harm than good.

But masks? Social distancing? Frequent testing? I’m sorry, but those are no-brainers. The same goes for vaccines. The World Health Organization, CDC, and other leading scientific groups have deemed the shots safe, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide have been safely and effectively vaccinated. Most covid protective measures have proved to be minor nuisances, involving negligible disruption and minimal risk. If the benefit is potentially saving the lives of millions of vulnerable people, and who knows how many in general, then the cost is clearly worth it.

For the record, it isn’t just Republicans or Libertarians who are eschewing recommended safety steps. In the past month, I’ve had to ask people in my predominantly liberal New York City apartment building to wear their masks in the lobby, laundry room, or basement gym, where masks are required, and members of my own family have balked at getting tested ahead of gatherings. In the infusion room where I receive my chemotherapy treatments, I’ve had to ask other patients, who are presumably immunocompromised themselves, to wear their masks after the staff — and who can blame them? — got tired of asking them.

I take no pleasure in hectoring people. I find no joy in prodding people to put on their masks or hike them up over their nose or not breathe down my neck, sometimes literally, in line at the grocery store. Believe me, I’d rather not take on the burden. I certainly don’t want to tell a perfect stranger I’m asking because I’m a cancer patient. Dropping a bomb like that isn’t fair. (Okay, I did it once, to a person in my building who I had to ask three times to wear a mask in the gym.)

At this point, almost two years into the pandemic, I understand everyone is sick and tired of it, and justifiably so. This period has been tragic for some, brutal for many, and awful for everyone. As much as anyone else, I’d like to burn my masks, stop getting shots and quit shoving long wooden sticks up my nose. Eventually, there will come a point when we can let down our guard. Those of us with immunity issues may still have to take extra precautions, but it won’t be necessary for everyone to do so.

But we’re not there yet. As the public health saying goes, we may be done with covid, but covid isn’t done with us. Until it is, our choice is to follow the rules or put everyone, especially the most defenseless among us, at increased, and undue, risk.

The morning I was diagnosed with my illness, one of the first thoughts that came to my mind was a wish. I wanted to see my firstborn child, my daughter, who was seven months old at the time, graduate from high school. This past June, having survived my initial diagnosis, seven recurrences and the pandemic to that point, I got to do just that.

Five years after my diagnosis, my wife and I decided to have a second child. We had been avoiding the subject for years, out of fear about my future, but one day we decided to talk about it. After a discussion of about, oh, 10 seconds, we chose to go ahead.

My son is now 13 and will start high school this fall. I’d like to see him graduate, too. To get to that day, I’d welcome your help.

Jon Gluck is the editorial director of special projects at Medium.

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