For anyone with a weak immune system, the stakes of the COVID-19 pandemic haven’t changed.
As state leaders relax stay-at-home orders, a vaccine is likely still more than a year away. That means it’s still too dangerous for people with compromised immune systems to come into contact with others.
Laura Mueller, who lives in South Austin, has cystic fibrosis – a genetic lung disorder that causes constant inflammation and infection in her lungs. Even before the pandemic, she said, she lived in fear of coming into contact with anyone who might be sick.
“Even just the regular flu is, you know, something that we always try to avoid as much possible,” she said.
And when the novel respiratory virus began spreading through the U.S. and Texas, the danger in Mueller's daily life rose to new heights.
“Just the unknown of having a new virus and not knowing how it affects people with CF specifically,” she said. “That was very shocking.”
Mueller was already working from home before the pandemic. Her husband, however, works at a coffee shop and comes into contact with people. When other establishments were forced to close under Austin's stay-at-home rules, his shop was allowed to stay open and do to-go orders.
So, Mueller said, they have had to keep their distance.
“We are using totally separate areas of our house,” she said. “I have been sleeping in our guest room now since the end of February. And we don’t have any hugs or cuddles – or anything like that.”
They are also using separate bathrooms and trying as much as possible to limit touching the same surfaces.
Although they've done this in the past when her husband has had a cold, Mueller said, this could be their life for a while now.
For people with compromised immune systems, the threat won’t end until there’s a vaccine or until most of the population is immune to the virus (what’s known as “herd immunity”).
Austin resident Jeremy Lopez had a kidney transplant back in 2006. He must take medicine multiple times a day to suppress his immune system, so his body doesn’t reject that new kidney.
Lopez said every time he goes out to a store, he is aware there's a potentially deadly virus surrounding him.
“It’s not a fear, because I think fear can take you down a rabbit hole,” he said. “But I think being aware like, 'OK, uh let me take myself out of this situation and I will come back.’ You know I get there early in the morning and get there right before they close – so, the least amount of contact.”
Jamie Boswell, a third-grade teacher with the Austin Independent School District, has the autoimmune disease lupus. She said it’s been a relief that she can teach from home.
She said her friends help with groceries, when she doesn’t use curbside – and she has kind of gotten used to this being the new normal.
“I even find myself relaxing into it and then I will make myself go read the statistics and remind myself of why I have to stay vigilant,” Boswell said. “I am going to try to maintain the same level [of vigilance], and it really depends a lot on work.”
Returning to school is the wildcard for her. Boswell doesn’t know whether she'll have to go back before there’s a vaccine. She said she’s looking forward to the summer, because she knows she can safely stay at home and not worry about it.
“At least I can take that out of my mind – that whole, what’s going to happen next year? – for just a few months before we have to start worrying about that again,” Boswell said.
And while she and others make long-term plans to stay inside, others are venturing back out into the world.
“You can feel the energy shift,” Lopez said. “You see a little more people out, more people driving. I think what maybe concerns me more is that there is less and less people wearing masks and covering up.”
Lopez said he understands people can’t be at home forever, but he wishes people would wear a mask when they do go to public places.
“If you feel like you have to be out there, just protect yourself – first of all – and protect everybody else around you,” he said, “because you don’t know who is in a situation. You know, because not everybody is in a wheelchair, not everybody is in a walker that is sick. It’s people who look perfectly fine, but have some underlying medical conditions.”
Mueller said she feels conflicted about Texas starting to open back up. She said her husband’s job depends on people going out and gathering and buying things – but she’s also scared. More people out means that world is likely to get more dangerous for her.
“I am torn because I do want things to reopen on a practical and safe level -- and just for our own finances,” she said, “but at the same time, for my health, I know I won’t be going out.”
Boswell said she wishes it didn’t seem like there must be a choice between the economy and peoples’ health.
“It’s definitely frustrating for me to see this continued touting of how important the economy is,” she said. “Health should be the most important thing, because without that nobody can go to work or go out to eat or anything else.”
Boswell said it’s hurtful to hear some imply that vulnerable populations might need to be sacrificed for the sake of the economy. She’s a single mom and said her son needs her.
It’s worth reminding people, Mueller said, that all sorts of people are vulnerable here.
“There are younger people who might look normal to you or seem normal, but are at extreme risk for catching this,” she said.
Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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