Living through the COVID-19 pandemic as a high risk student

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The year 2020 will definitely go down in history, especially UVU history. On March 11, WHO officially declared the COVID-19 virus as a pandemic. In response, many businesses closed and school’s were soon to follow. UVU moved their courses online officially on March 23.

Although everyone has been affected by the virus in one way or the other, there is one group that’s significantly impacted by COVID-19, yet hardly heard from. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, there are an estimated 10 million people in the U.S. with compromised immune systems who could be more severely affected by the pandemic. However, the actual number could be much higher because this estimate only includes HIV/AIDS patients, organ transplant recipients and cancer patients.

People who are older or who have a weakened immune system due to underlying conditions or immunosuppressive treatments are unable to fight viruses as well as the average person. This means if they contract COVID-19, these individuals are more likely to have serious side effects and a higher risk of fatality. 

Many comments have been shared such as, “this only affects those that are high risk, I will be fine.” These words are not comforting for those within that group, and are in fact, quite harmful. On top of this, it’s important to be aware that it’s very possible to know many at risk people without realizing it. Because of these statements and the threat of the disease, COVID-19 has been especially difficult for those that are at high risk. Here are experiences from our own UVU students in this category.

Pregnant during a pandemic

Rebecca Larson is 23 weeks pregnant and a nurse. Through the pandemic, she continues to work her regular hospital hours. Although she is excited to be pregnant, it’s challenging to have it aligned with a pandemic. She wishes she could be on the front lines helping those in critical situations, but she can’t. It’s not safe for her or them.  

The hospital Rebecca works at classifies her as high risk because of her pregnancy. Luckily, current research hasn’t proven COVID-19 to be harmful to fetuses. But, for Rebecca, her immunity is decreased and she has a higher likelihood to catch the virus, especially working as a nurse. If she were to contract the virus, respiratory distress or a high fever could harm the baby, and her treatment options could be limited as a pregnant woman. Having previously experienced a miscarriage, she is already cautious and anxious, and having a world pandemic going on doesn’t help.

“I’m generally healthy as a horse.  I don’t get sick other than seasonal allergies and a cold once a year. Yet it’s all different now, and I suddenly have to be more careful than ever before,” Rebecca said. “My bump makes it obvious that I’m higher risk, but not everyone has such obvious signs. I’m not paranoid, but I am cautious, and I pray I won’t catch a bad strain.”  

Being pregnant, Rebecca has to visit doctors frequently. Precautions due to the virus have made those visits different. Rebecca cannot bring her husband to appointments. He was able to attend her 20 week ultrasound, but none since, and he also hasn’t been able to meet her OBGYN.

At the hospital, Rebecca works in surgical and trauma. She says that things overall are different. Because elective surgeries are currently on hold, there are less people on her floor. Rebecca has noticed that with social distancing in place, the amount of traumatic accidents have decreased. 

Rebecca’s floor does not have COVID-19 patients and she is exempt from going to floors that have them. Being high risk isn’t just dangerous for her, but also patients. These precautions are put into place to prevent her from getting sick for herself, as well as passing it on to patients who are also at high risk. Rebecca is grateful because she feels her work has been doing what they can to keep her safe and be understanding of her situation. In case her floor does begin taking COVID-19 patients, her work has put a plan in place to help keep her out of harm’s way.

At her work, staff are being monitored for symptoms and infection control measures are in place. Each time someone is admitted, their potential of exposure is considered. Rebecca feels safer at work than in public when it comes to possibility of infection. In the public, less is being done, and not everyone is aware of risk factors or their own health status.

Rebecca appreciated how quickly the school closed. Although it seemed excessive initially to her, she now says it’s a relief to not have to go through overflowing hallways. She found it helpful for the school to be looking out for people who are high risk. Otherwise, it could have been difficult for immunocompromised individuals to be excused from classes.

In terms of the government, Rebecca feels like things could have been better, although she recognizes it is a difficult situation. She said the response was slow, with a lack of proper testing and proper personal protective equipment. 

“When the pandemic first started, government officials, international groups and parties within the U.S. seemed like they were trying to further their own agendas and seemed more concerned about fighting with each other than about actually helping the people,” she said.

Originally, Rebecca felt like some of the restrictions were over the top, but now it makes more sense as the disease has been spreading. After hearing what the situations were like in Italy and New York from friends she has there, she was grateful for the federal government’s response.

Subsequently to the virus, many statements have been shared that “other” those that are at high risk. People have claimed that the virus is only an issue for those that are immunocompromised, with pre-existing conditions or elderly. This creates a problematic view of ableism and ageism, as well as causes harm to those in these groups. Rebecca said she has heard these opinions and they can be quite discouraging.

“I hear it all the time, especially now that there’s a debate to open up the economy sooner.  It discourages me, honestly, because most of the people with the “othering” mindset haven’t studied epidemiology, microbiology, biochemistry, etc. the way that my colleagues and I have.  I realize that  it’s a very difficult situation, and I don’t want to get into the economy debate, but a disease like this doesn’t just spread by direct interaction with a known carrier,” Rebecca said.

“It can be passed along to someone unknowingly and they can spread it to someone who is at high risk, which makes even essential trips, shopping, doctor’s appointments, etcetera, dangerous to immunocompromised individuals.  It’s really easy to say ‘that won’t happen to me’ or ‘that just happens to other people’ until it’s you or someone you care about.” 

Rebecca says it is hard to see the immunocompromised being overlooked, but it isn’t just in this situation. They are constantly, and it’s important to listen to them.  

“We underestimate how many people are truly at risk, and we don’t think to be careful.  We think they are one in a million,” she said. “To those that are high risk, you don’t have to share your risk information if you don’t want to, unless of course you could find yourself in a dangerous situation, like working in healthcare, but don’t be afraid to spread awareness if you feel so inclined.  Your life matters, and you deserve to have people respect that, as well as having reasonable accommodations.”   

Diabetic during the rise of COVID-19

Shaleah Hayes is a 19-year-old UVU junior studying art and design with a graphic design emphasis. In September 2011, Shaleah was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 10-years-old. Her father was diagnosed with it as well in 2015, and they’ve been managing it together.

According to the American Diabetes Association, people with diabetes are more likely to experience serious symptoms and complications from COVID-19, just like they would with other viruses. 

Shaleah said that she has gotten sick with the flu twice in the past three years and so has her family, but the difference is she always ends up  bedridden for a week, while they are still able to function and work. She said that she doesn’t get sick often, but when she does, it hits her harder since her body is unable to heal as fast as others.

During quarantine, Shaleah has been living at home and has been lucky to not have to leave her house to avoid risking contact with COVID-19. Her mother does most of the outside shopping for her family. Although she likes to get out to run, walk or longboard, she takes precautions when it comes to public places. 

She said immunocompromised individuals are overlooked a little, though most people understand the aspect that there are people that have a lesser immune system and could seriously be affected. What frustrates her is college-aged individuals and high school students still getting together in close proximity groups.

Shaleah said it was easy during the first week to misunderstand the scope of the problem, and she too didn’t quite understand it. But as she saw news of New York, and diabetes pages talking of COVID-19 and its effect, Shaleah decided to stay home and take necessary precautions to keepsafe. 

In this time, she appreciates the government and their words of encouragement to quarantine and stay at home. She believes these efforts have helped in keeping the number of cases down. 

“Keeping essentials open and closing businesses has helped as well. I know it hurts the small businesses but I feel it’s a sacrifice that needs to be made so more aren’t affected and harmed,” she said.

Shaleah says it can be saddening to see others say that only the elderly or the sick will be seriously affected.

“So many options are at play and even someone healthy could be seriously affected by this virus. I’m frustrated that more of the younger generation isn’t taking this as the serious matter it is. There are people of all ages and health ranges dying. And yes there might be more that are elderly or affected health-wise that die or get hospitalized more often, but there are still cases that aren’t,” Shaleah said.

“It’s a real thing, and we [high risk individuals] still have daily tasks to do. I’m lucky enough to live with family who can go out for me, but there are others living on their own who are more at risk cause they still need to shop and still may work. So, I would ask, please wear a mask and be understanding that the rules in place are there to help everyone, but especially those immunocompromised and higher risk,” she said.