It’s quite something that the pandemic started to get going in New York nearly two years ago, and yet I am still talking about it. Wow.
Just a couple of days before I published my previous regularly-scheduled Monday blog post, a bit of a firestorm erupted in the disability community when CDC Director Rochelle Walensky made a rather callous-sounding comment about people with comorbidities when replying to a question about whether we need to think about how we live with this virus: “The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities, so really these are people who were unwell to begin with, and yes, really encouraging news. In the context of Omicron, this means not only to get your primary series, but to get your booster series, um, and yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”
The anger stemmed from the fact that Dr. Walensky regarded the high percentage of deaths coming from people with all these comorbidities being “encouraging news.” The most charitable view of this quote, in the context of the question asked, is that people with multiple comorbidities—some of the most vulnerable among us health-wise—are an afterthought when it comes to thinking about health policy in relation to the pandemic. I saw many who took an even less charitable view than what I did here. Regardless, in the aftermath of what she said, the anger resulted in a hashtag that went viral on social media: #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy.
However, Dr. Walensky’s comments do not exist in a bubble. It’s only a microcosm of a larger issue: the lack of care for the immunocompromised during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consider the fact that the main health policy for everyone, including those with compromised immune systems, is to get vaccinated, even though there is evidence that the vaccines are less effective for the immunocompromised than for others. Even in a study published a couple of months ago—before the more recent Omicron variant, which is better at evading vaccines than previous variants—it was showing that the vaccines were less effective for the immunocompromised than for the rest of the population. Mind you, even for the immunocompromised, getting vaccinated is better than not getting vaccinated, but the study shows that vaccines have not provided the same level of protection to that population as to the rest of us. And yet the main health guidance, including for the immunocompromised, is to simply get vaccinated.
Then there’s the fact that there is a big push from some of our leaders to go back to work or school, even for the immunocompromised, amid this current Omicron surge in many parts of the country. Considering that vaccines are less effective for the immunocompromised than for the rest of us, and considering the push to get everyone to work and school (even said immunocompromised people) on top of all of that, it all sounds like a recipe for putting the lives of a whole group of people at risk, just for the sake of fulfilling the desire of certain other people or groups of people to get back to school or work. The lack of accommodations I have seen for those who are immunocompromised amid a pandemic that makes many of them so vulnerable, when it comes to schooling and work, goes to show the lack of care so many of us have for that population of people.
It would be all too easy, though, to simply point our fingers at government officials far away from where we are sitting and not look at ourselves and how our own actions can show a lack of care for the immunocompromised with this pandemic. Especially with this extremely contagious Omicron variant, every time we don’t mask up when we are in a crowd (a cloth mask by itself is not enough, by the way), every time we only bring our masks up to our noses, and every time we make the decision to force our immunocompromised friends into a situation where they have to encounter large crowds are times we do not show adequate care for that population. The people I saw on a New York City subway train a few months ago who refused to wear masks even when begged to wear one by a fellow train rider who said that she was immunocompromised due to cancer came across as every bit as uncaring to such populations as Dr. Walensky did with her comment.
All these things I talk about show a complete lack of care for those who are immunocompromised during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what is the alternative?
The answer to this question, for me, is another question: What if our public health policy centered around doing all we can to protect the immunocompromised? It sounds like an action centered on protecting one particular group of people, but if one thinks about it, by doing all that we can to protect one of the populations most vulnerable to getting seriously ill or killed by COVID-19, we would, at least in some of our policies, be doing all we can to protect all populations from that same fate, by extension. Perhaps that is the approach to take, instead of the current approach to many things, which is to leave people with various health conditions off to the sides. An approach that, I must point out, is leading to hospital rates nationwide being the highest it has been in this entire pandemic.