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Back to Normal? Many Immunocompromised People Feel Left Behind as U.S. Lifts Pandemic Measures

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As U.S. health guidelines start to loosen as COVID-19 cases fall from record-high levels of infection, we look at how there there are still millions of immunocompromised people who face acute risk of illness and feel they have received little to no guidance on how to stay safe in a prolonged COVID-19 world. Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ed Yong of The Atlantic spoke to immunocompromised people for his new report and says, “While a lot of the world opens up, their world shuts down, and they feel left behind and abandoned by the government, by their friends, by their workplaces.” Yong notes immunocompromised people “want their lives back, too,” but are just asking for structural solutions to help keep them and non-immunocompromised people safe.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The World Health Organization says the number of confirmed coronavirus infections worldwide fell by 19% last week as many countries in Europe and the Americas saw a sharp drop from record-high levels of infection. Even so, there were 16 million new cases and about 75,000 deaths reported around the globe last week. Here in the U.S., where more than 3,300 new COVID-19 deaths were reported Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said her agency is preparing to issue new guidelines that will suggest loosening public health restrictions.

We’re joined now by Ed Yong, science writer at The Atlantic who won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his coverage of the pandemic. His new piece is headlined “The Millions of People Stuck in Pandemic Limbo: What does society owe immunocompromised people?”

Ed, welcome back to Democracy Now! You write, “This isn’t a small group. Close to 3 percent of U.S. adults take immunosuppressive drugs, either to treat cancers or autoimmune disorders or to stop their body from rejecting transplanted organs or stem cells. That makes at least 7 million immunocompromised people — a number that’s already larger than the populations of 36 states, without even including the millions more who have diseases that also hamper immunity, such as AIDS and at least 450 genetic disorders.” Take it from there, Ed. Talk about the immunocompromised population and how that should affect federal policy and state policy in this country in the midst of the pandemic.

ED YONG: Yeah, I think that we always have had, and continue to have, a responsibility to care for the most vulnerable among us. And at the moment, that includes these 7 million-plus people. Immunocompromised folks have had a really rough time over the pandemic. They continue to feel abandoned and isolated, and increasingly so as the rest of society is so intent on pushing back towards normal. The lifting of protections that safeguarded them, like mask mandates and vaccine mandates, hurts them. It means that while a lot of the world opens up, their world shuts down, and they feel left behind and abandoned by the government, by their friends, by their workplaces, who are buying into this rhetoric that Omicron is mild, that the pandemic is over. It’s very much not over for them. And as I said, this is not a small group. Most of the people who I interviewed for this piece are vaccinated, but for a lot of them, vaccines don’t trigger the same strong immune response that they do in the rest of us. So, many of them know they’re not protected, and a lot of them simply are in the dark about how safe they are during this era when so many other people are luxuriating in the security of immunity.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ed, could you explain what you know of the impact that Omicron has had on immunocompromised people? And also, immunocompromised people, as you point out in your piece, have always lived with a heightened risk of infection. Explain why COVID is different.

ED YONG: Yeah, so, one really common misconception about immunocompromised people is that they are both, like, visibly and obviously sick and are already secluding themselves in some kind of bubble. In the main, that is not true. Many of them look — most of them probably look very, very healthy. They’re just out and about. They’re part of society. They’re the people checking your books out in the library or driving your Uber, or they’re bagging groceries at the grocery store. They’re people around you. Most of us will likely know immunocompromised people, who we have no idea are immunocompromised. And what they — so, they already lived with a heightened risk from infections, and many of them took steps to manage that, whether it’s getting flu vaccines or wiping down surfaces or avoiding events during the height of flu seasons.

But COVID is different, right? COVID is deadlier than a lot of preexisting respiratory viruses. Obviously it is everywhere. It is spread really quickly. It can spread asymptomatically from people who aren’t sick. And it has forced many of them to take even greater steps to protect themselves from infections that they know can hit them really, really hard.

And Omicron is no different, right? There is this common narrative that Omicron is mild. Well, it might be milder than, say, Delta, but it is not mild in certainly not people whose immune systems are already suppressed. Plus, the fact that Omicron is everywhere, it spreads so quickly, just seriously heightens the risks posed to immunocompromised people, including those, as I’ve said, who have been vaccinated but may still be unprotected.

But the big difference that Omicron brought about was just an intense lack of care, an intense dismissal by friends, by family members, by colleagues, who really just threw their hands up and said that the world was done with the pandemic. Well, immunocompromised people are not done. And a lot of them feel really, really dismissed and often mocked by people who are meant to be close to them, who are meant to be taking their lives into account. You know, things like — it goes from small insults, like social options disappearing — a lot of people talk to me about how friends refuse to talk to them on Skype or Zoom anymore, instead only — because they only want to do in-person gatherings — to workplace options disappearing. A lot of folks managed to protect themselves over the last two years because of remote working options. A lot of employers are rolling those back now at the same time that big protections like mask mandates are lifting. And that just crunches a lot of immunocompromised people into a very, very difficult spot. As one person told me, it’s like being told — that it’s like being unable to swim, but being told that you have to jump into the ocean instead of first trying out a pool. There’s this common stereotype that immunocompromised people are holding the rest of society back in some way, when, in fact, it’s completely the opposite. It’s the rest of society is dragging them back into a kind of forced reintegration with absolutely no regard for the huge residual risks that they still carry.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ed, could you also explain what some of the obstacles have been for immunocompromised people, and others, of course, in accessing treatments to COVID? And then also explain what the people you spoke to — what are immunocompromised people calling for? I mean, presumably, they are, as you say in your piece, not interested in prolonging the restrictions that have gone on with the pandemic. What would they like to see happen?

ED YONG: Absolutely. So, better — more equitable access to treatments is certainly one of them. I talk in this piece about Evusheld, the combination of antibodies that could be given to prevent infections. Those hold promise for immunocompromised people. You know, they’re sort of doubling in for the antibodies that their own bodies are not producing in response to vaccines. The problem is that the doses of Evusheld that we have on hand are just pitifully short. You know, there’s just one-point-something million, as opposed to the at least 7 million immunocompromised people who exist in this country alone. And the fact that doses were underordered and undersupplied means that you often have to be — you have to be very sick, you have to be at the very height of immunosuppression, to get it. A lot of hospitals have had to do lotteries for some of their immunocompromised patients. And all of that heightens this sense of being abandoned by the government and by the rest of society. Consider how much effort went into producing and distributing vaccines, and compare that to the comparative lack of effort in distributing antivirals that could make a huge difference to this population.

AMY GOODMAN: Before —

ED YONG: In terms of what they — let me just answer the second bit. In terms of what they want, you’re right. Like, exactly none of the people I spoke to said permanent lockdown. They want their lives back, too. They want to be part of the world, and they need to be. Their jobs are out there. You know, their lives are out there. Their families are out there. They just need it to be safer.

And their demands and requests are really reasonable. It’s things like better ventilation standards; easier access to treatments and testing; things like mask mandates, but in a flexible way, when cases are surging; especially remote options, flexibility around things like working and schooling, so that people who have a higher risk find it easier to protect themselves; structural solutions, like paid sick leave. All of these measures, I will note, are things that would also benefit immunocompetent people.

And so it’s really not like immunocompromised people are asking for the world. Again, there’s this stereotype that, you know, they just want a permanent lockdown. Nothing could be further from the truth. They want a world that they can exist in, much like the world that everyone else wants, but they just need that world to be safer for them. And we can make it. We can create a society in which immunocompromised people are less disabled. We have a choice in the matter. Disability is a matter of society as much as it is about biology. It comes down to a lot of the choices that we decide to make and about whose lives we choose to value.

AMY GOODMAN: Ed Yong, we want to thank you for being with us, science writer at The Atlantic, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his coverage of the pandemic. We’ll link to his piece in The Atlantic, “The Millions of People Stuck in Pandemic Limbo: What does society owe immunocompromised people?”

Coming up, we talk to Amnesty International about possible war crimes in Ethiopia. Stay with us.

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