Highlighting the Lack of Care for the Immunocompromised During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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.”[1]

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.[2] 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[3]), 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.[4]

[1] You can large a large portion of the clip where Dr. Walensky said this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hVPz-A8auw

[2] https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/covid-19-vaccines-less-effective-in-immunocompromised-people

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2022/01/05/cloth-masks-not-effective-omicron-covid/9091574002/

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-59960949

Coronavirus Update From New York City: January 20, 2022

I hope that all of my readers are healthy and safe, regardless of where you are.

On a personal note, everyone in my family seems to be continuing to avoid the virus. We’ve been very cautious when it comes to things like masking and large indoor gatherings, so I imagine all of that has helped. Hopefully this trend continues, because even among my fully vaccinated and boosted friends who’ve gotten the virus’s Omicron variant, it still sounds rather unpleasant (albeit, beating ending up in a hospital, or worse, in many of the cases of those who are not vaccinated).

However, there is one way in which it is difficult to do what needs to be done in order to prevent getting the variant myself: it has been a struggle to get one of the types of masks the medical experts recommend. Medical experts are saying that the N95 masks (the highest quality of mask from a protection standpoint) and the KN95 masks (not quite as good as the N95s, but still very good) are the best ones to have. However, it has been a challenge, to say the least, to find such masks. My family is doing the best that it can, by wearing two masks whenever we go indoors (with a blue surgical mask under a cloth mask). But it would still be nice to have a greater availability of the kinds of masks the medical experts recommend.

I also think we need to make sure to be forceful about the messaging around wearing a cloth mask by itself. I am still seeing a lot of people wearing a cloth mask by itself, even though all the medical experts I’ve been hearing lately are saying that cloth masks by themselves are little more than a face decoration when it comes to protection against the Omicron variant. I would like to think that we could prevent some spread of the virus if there were more forceful messaging when it came to wearing cloth masks by themselves, but of course, I am not a public health expert, so I don’t know how much said forceful messaging would have helped.

The promising news is that the number of people testing positive in New York, as well as in many other parts of the northeastern United States, is down. This makes sense to me, as this part of the United States also seemed to be the first part to get slammed by the Omicron variant. This creates some hope, I think, that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, at least when it comes to this specific variant of the virus.

The number of people getting infected by this is still quite high, so I would urge against complacency, even in the parts of the United States or the world where cases continue to decline. I especially urge against this because there are parts of the region where hospital beds and ICU beds are filling up again, so we want to make sure to do what we can to keep hospital and ICU beds from getting overwhelmed, if they aren’t overwhelmed already. Furthermore, a lot of people seem to be getting sick in a short span of time, resulting in continuing shortages of everything from bus drivers to certain kinds of food. Now is not the time for complacency, indeed.

So, that is pretty much it from my corner of the world. As always, I am interested to hear how others are doing.

Coronavirus Update From New York City: January 13, 2022

As has been the case with the Omicron variant, things continue to change rapidly where I am living.

At this time last week, cases were increasing quite rapidly in New York City. It now appears as if we have potentially reached our peak in terms of cases here in New York. I hear that this is the case for some other major metropolitan areas on the East Coast of the United States. Albeit, it’s an extraordinarily high peak, but a peak nevertheless. The hope is that we can now start to recover from Omicron, and see cases start to decrease.

That doesn’t mean that we are out of the woods in New York City–far from it. With the number of people testing positive and falling ill with this, so many of the essential services have slowed down significantly. We’re still having issues here in New York with things like mass transit running at reduced schedules, EMTs continuing to face staffing shortages, and more. Given that the rate of the virus’s spread has compromised or outright crippled many essential services, all of us as individuals need to slow the spread–in other words, not doing things like going to parties and crowded bars maskless (even if you are vaccinated).

On a personal level, I am still healthy, and I am grateful that I am working from home again for the time being. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that if I weren’t working from home, I would’ve been exposed to COVID. And, knowing how contagious the Omicron variant is, there’s a decent chance I would’ve tested positive for it and have brought it home to the rest of my family. None of that is the case, however, because I am working from home. Hopefully I can continue to avoid this, though some infectious disease experts are suggesting that everyone is probably going to be exposed to Omicron at some point.

My social life is, unfortunately, mostly confined to a bunch of boxes on Zoom (or some other virtual media platform). However, it sure beats the alternative right now, which is to risk catching or spreading the virus to someone else, particularly someone vulnerable like an immunocompromised person or someone who is under the age of 5.

So, that is how I am doing. I hope others are healthy!

Please note that I will not be publishing a blog post next Monday.

Coronavirus Update From New York City: January 6, 2022

About the only thing I feel like I can predict with this pandemic is the prediction that things change.

When I decreed in a mid-November COVID update blog post that I will be doing update posts at a rate of about once a month, it was before the Omicron variant of the Coronavirus. Since then, of course, the Omicron variant has become the dominant one, even over Delta.

And this variant is different from others in that it seems more contagious than other variants of COVID. In fact, this is the first variant where a lot of my friends are catching it. A relative of mine himself came into close contact with multiple people who tested positive for COVID, but his tests (thankfully) came back negative. Ditto with my mom’s parents, who are in their 90s and came into contact with someone who tested positive.

However, there are promising indicators in terms of the severity of the variant. I’ve been hearing reports that, as a whole, people are less likely to land in the hospital with this variant than with other variants, and that people who end up in the hospital with Omicron are likely to have shorter hospital stays than they would with other variants. Still, with the extreme numbers of people getting this variant, I remain concerned that this could spread so rapidly that strained hospitals could yet get overwhelmed.

Even if strained hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, there’s the concern about the fact that so many people are testing positive that it grinds important aspects of life to a crawl. So much of what I’m seeing locally in New York City and nationally in the United States are symptoms of that, ranging from entire subway lines getting suspended in New York due to subway crew shortages to airlines having to cancel flights due to crews testing positive for the virus.

Because so much is being slowed to a crawl, I’m of the mind that people and governments should be doing all that they can to slow the spread of this virus, including masking, social distancing (when possible), going back to remote work for the time being (once again, when possible), and really minimizing larger gatherings (as much as I hate to say this as I was just starting to connect with more people in person). It’s tough, and not what we want or desire, but something that I think needs to be done in order to allow vital elements of or society semi-functional.

So, that is pretty much it from where I am. I hope others are healthy.

Coronavirus Update From New York City: December 16, 2021

It has been a month or so since I made my previous COVID update post. A lot has happened with the pandemic globally since then!

In late November, the Omicron variant of the virus was found in South Africa. Since then, it has been detected in many other countries, including mine: the United States. In fact, it has spread enough that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 13% of all cases in New York and New Jersey are from Omicron.[1] The Delta variant is still the dominant one, both locally and nationally, but Omicron is spreading quickly, especially in my part of the United States.

I still feel like there is so much to learn about Omicron, and perhaps that relative lack of knowledge, even now, is leading to some level of fear. The indications we have received from a major South African study is that this variant is more resistant to vaccines than previous variants yet seems to overall result in less serious infections.[2] However, there is still a lot to learn as we are in the early days of this variant. Furthermore, it must be pointed out that even with the increased vaccine resistance, two doses of the Pfizer vaccine may offer 70% protection against hospitalizations from the virus.[3]

The aforementioned statistic creates some hope that maybe, just maybe being fully vaccinated and boosted will provide greater protection yet against serious infections from the virus. But we will need to wait and see.

Of course, vaccination is not the only layer of protection. Things like masks and good indoor ventilation can act as further layers of protection against the virus as many of us attempt to achieve, as one priest I heard recently call it, a “fragile normal.” And it is very fragile, as many of us are trying to do the activities we did before the pandemic, such as visit family, without trying to endanger others around us by getting the virus. With Omicron, that normal may be as fragile as ever.

Part of that fragile normal includes your needing to wear a mask in New York State if you are in a place that is not your home and does not require full vaccination proof (like a grocery store).[4] All I will say there is that I’m grateful that I don’t live in one of the parts of New York State where counties are saying that they won’t enforce the mandate, and where many if not most people are anti-masking.

But that is not the only thing I’m grateful for this holiday season. I’m also grateful that the vaccination rate is higher where I am than in many other parts of the country. And I’m grateful that the friends I have and the groups I am a part of are, by-in-large, pro-vaccine. I know some are not so lucky.

Speaking of holidays, I will not be writing a regular Monday blog post next week, but I will do my yearly wrap-up blog post a week from today.

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/12/15/cdc-estimates-13percent-of-all-cases-in-ny-and-nj-could-be-omicron-infections-director-walensky-says.html

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/12/14/south-africa-omicron-coronavirus/

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/coronavirus/ny-mask-requirement-for-indoor-public-places-with-no-vaccine-mandate-is-in-effect/3447022/