COVID still threatens millions of Americans. Why are we so eager to move on?

People with weakened immune systems or other high-risk conditions argue that now is the time, as the omicron surge subsides, to double down on policies that protect vulnerable Americans like them.

“The pandemic isn’t over,” said Matthew Cortland, a senior fellow working on disability and healthcare for Data for Progress, who is chronically ill and immunocompromised. “There is no reason to believe that another variant won’t emerge. … Now is the time, as this omicron wave begins to recede, to pursue policies and interventions that protect chronically ill, disabled, and immunocompromised people so that we aren’t left behind.”

Several people interviewed by KHN who are part of this community said that, instead, the opposite is taking place, pointing to a January comment by CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky that implied it was “encouraging news” that the majority of people dying of COVID were already sick.

“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,” said Walensky, when discussing a study during a television interview that showed the level of protection vaccinated people had against severe illness from COVID. “And yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron.”

Although the CDC later said Walensky’s remarks were taken out of context, Kendall Ciesemier, a 29-year-old multimedia producer living in Brooklyn, New York, said she was disturbed by the comments.

Walensky’s statement “sent shock waves through the disability community and the chronic illness community,” said Ciesemier, who has had two liver transplants.

“It was saying the quiet part out loud,” she added, noting that though it was likely a gaffe, the strong reaction to it “stemmed from this holistic feeling that these communities have not been prioritized during the pandemic and it feels like our lives are acceptable losses.”

When asked by a KHN reporter at the Feb. 9 White House COVID press briefing what she wanted to convey to people who feel they are being left behind, Walensky didn’t offer a clear answer.

“We, of course, have to make recommendations that are, you know, relevant for New York City and rural Montana,” she said, adding that they have to be “relevant for the public, but also for the public who is immunocompromised and disabled. And so, that — all of those considerations are taken into account as we work on our guidance.”

Although the CDC currently recommends that vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors if they are in a place with high or substantial covid transmission — which includes most of the U.S. — federal officials have indicated this guidance may be updated soon.

“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing, when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” said Walensky during a Feb. 16 White House covid briefing, when discussing whether CDC’s covid prevention policies would be altered soon.

But there’s no mask break in sight for Dennis Boen, a 67-year-old retiree who has had three kidney transplants. Because his community of Wooster, Ohio, already lacks a mask mandate and few residents voluntarily wear masks, he hasn’t felt comfortable returning to many of the social events that he enjoys.

“I quit going to my Rotary Club that I’ve been a part of for decades,” Boen said. “I went once in the summer to a picnic outside and it was like the people who didn’t believe [in COVID] or didn’t care weren’t wearing masks and they weren’t giving me any space. Therefore, it was just easier to not go.”

Charis Hill, a 35-year-old disability activist in Sacramento, California, has postponed two surgeries, a hysterectomy, and an umbilical hernia repair for over a year because Hill didn’t feel safe. Delaying has meant Hill has had to take additional medications and eat only certain foods. The surgeries are scheduled for March 21, but now that California’s mask mandate has lifted, Hill is thinking about delaying the procedures again.

“I feel disposable. As if my life doesn’t have value,” said Hill, who is living with axial spondyloarthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease, and takes immune-suppressing medication. “I am tired of constantly being told that I should just stay home and let the rest of the world move on.”

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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