For those who are high risk, the pandemic is far from over

For those who are high risk, the pandemic is far from over

There are times over the last three-plus years that I’ve wondered if I’ve been a little too heavy-handed in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Those questions cropped up anew after Emily Oster of The Atlantic suggested that we declare a “pandemic amnesty” for how we reacted when the pandemic first mushroomed. With few exceptions, even though I’m vaccinated and boosted, I still wear a mask indoors. I also have a hair trigger for displays of covidiocy on social media. However, I did so in large part because a lot of people in my inner circle are either high-risk or immunocompromised. Closest to home, I have an 82-year-old mother, and a father-in-law and brother-in-law who are diabetics.

But any doubt I had about whether I was being too harsh went out the window earlier this month. One of my dearest friends is asking a question no one should have to ask—whether she is dying in part because people around her didn’t take this pandemic seriously.

I’ve known “Kathleen” for the better part of 20 years—dating back to the days when Yahoo! Messenger was a big thing. She’s a Type I diabetic, and this pandemic has been pretty rough on her. She lives in a Deep South state with a very low vaccination rate, where a lot of people act like it’s 2019. Despite being fully vaccinated, she’s had four bouts with COVID-19.

On Halloween—the same day as Oster’s call for amnesty went live—Kathleen’s doctor told her that her liver was severely damaged; she’s been having problems with her liver since this summer, going into jaundice at least once. The doctor believes it’s either cancer or complications from COVID. He had already made plans for either diagnosis. Had it been cancer, he was prepared to treat it with chemotherapy. Had it been COVID-related, Kathleen would have needed a transplant—but that would have been contingent on finding a way to pay for the powerful anti-rejection drugs she would have had to take for the rest of her life.

A week later, Kathleen told me that she isn’t willing to do either chemo or a transplant. She decided that she isn’t willing to deal with the pain and being constantly drained. However, she’s at peace about deciding to let things take their course. A devout Pentecostal, she is, as she put it, “ready to meet my Savior.”

That doesn’t make it any less sad—or maddening, considering that this is a COVID complication. The prospect of cancer is horrifying enough. But the fact that Kathleen and her family even have to ask whether her liver problems are COVID-related is nothing short of an obscenity. It’s a reminder that wearing a mask and getting vaccinated aren’t just about protecting you; they’re about protecting those around you.

Indeed, I found myself thinking back to former Secretary of State and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell.

Powell died of COVID last year despite being fully vaccinated. However, he had multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks your white blood cells. Powell’s treatment regimen further weakened his immune system, making him particularly dependent on those around him to be vaccinated.

If Kathleen’s liver problems do turn out to be COVID-related, she and her family would be in the same position as Powell’s family. That is, they would have to wonder whether Kathleen is in this debilitating situation because somebody, or a whole lot of somebodies, wasn’t willing to take rudimentary steps to keep those around them safe. Situations like this are why it’s morally and intellectually dishonest to claim that getting vaccinated is a personal choice. It’s possible that someone’s “personal choice” may ultimately lead to Kathleen’s mother having to do what no mother should ever have to do—bury her child.

It’s also a reminder that, when you look at the impact this pandemic has had on our lives, it’s grossly derelict to just focus on the deaths. You have to consider the debilitating complications brought on by how COVID sends immune systems into overdrive.

RELATED: A mass disabling event: The effects of long COVID don’t stop at the individual

Indeed, when Kathleen revealed the possibility that her liver problems were COVID-related, I thought about Addie Lanthorn, a little girl in the Charlotte suburbs. Her toenails were so weakened by a supposedly mild COVID bout that they keep falling off whenever they begin to grow back. The pain in her feet is so severe that her parents have to wrap her feet so she can sleep, and when it’s cold and rainy the pain in her feet is as severe as adult arthritis. According to Lanthorn’s mother, this is because the local school board was one of the few in the Charlotte area that didn’t require masks for kids going to school in person.

Despite the age difference, Lanthorn’s ordeal is no different from that of Kathleen. People taking the line that protecting someone from a debilitating virus with ghastly complications is a matter of personal choice have caused two families to ask whether their daughters are suffering because of said line. That’s a question that no one in any civilized society should even have to ask.

Even if it turns out that Kathleen’s liver problems are tied to cancer, the mere fact that she should even have to ask whether they were caused by COVID complications ought to be an indictment of how we have handled this virus. When people have to ask whether they’re gravelly ill because those around them think looking out for others is a matter of personal choice, it can only be described as a moral failing.

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