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Young People With Chronic Illness Need Everyone Else To Take Social Distancing Seriously, Too

'Never in a million years did I imagine that other people would be having to think about this'

By Fortesa Latifi

Zipporah Arielle, 26, has been on immune-suppressing medications since she was 16 years old as part of a regimen to manage a cluster of autoimmune diseases. If she gets a cold, it takes her longer to get well. If she gets a cut, it takes longer to heal. Now, it also means that she’s more at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus that is spreading around the world, and suffering worse complications as a result.

On March 11, the World Health Organization classified the spread of the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19, as a pandemic. But even before that, doctors and health officials warned that certain population groups are more at risk for complications if they contract the novel coronavirus. That includes older people, those with serious health conditions like lung disease, and people of all ages who are immuno-compromised, like Arielle.

So, she is quarantining herself at home in Nashville, Tennessee, and minimizing her contact with the outside world in an attempt to avoid catching the virus. She orders her groceries via InstaCart and makes sure her roommate washes her hands when she comes in from outside. Her doctors have also recommended that she isolate herself as much as possible.

She has also made sure she has “an abundance of hand soap and Clorox wipes and hand towels.” But she’s a freelance writer and stocking up on supplies has already upended her strict budget. “Now I’m kind of left with less of a financial safety net which isn’t really what you want as a sick person in America at the beginning of a pandemic,” she said.

Arielle is doing what she can. But she’s most frustrated by a sense that “some people aren’t worried because it won’t impact them,” she told MTV News. “And they’re not worried about the people it will impact.”

In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, experts  recommend that people practice social distancing, and limit their interactions with others. Formal guidelines vary by state but generally include avoiding groups of more than 10 people, not going out to restaurants or bars, and limiting elective travel. Not everyone has the ability to social distance, as many people perform jobs that cannot be done remotely, or do not have the luxury of missing a few days of work. But experts stress that it’s especially crucial for everyone, and even people who are not exhibiting symptoms, to partake if they can, in order to help protect their more vulnerable peers.

“Those who are not following the recommendations are endangering their own lives,” Dr. Mitchell Cairo, the chief of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, and Stem Cell Transplantation at Westchester Medical Center, told MTV News. “And they are endangering the lives of their family and friends and of people they don’t know.”

Although young and healthy people have so far been less likely to have complications from coronavirus, they can still be asymptomatic carriers for the virus and spread it to others. And people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable to developing complications as a result of COVID-19. “If you’re immune-suppressed, you’re not going to be able to respond in an appropriate manner to microbes such as COVID-19, so you’re at a significantly higher risk” of contracting the novel coronavirus, Dr. Cairo said.

From the outside, Arielle knows people aren’t likely to think she would be more at risk for coronavirus, especially given that she is not visibly sick — and she doesn’t owe anyone that personal information. “It reminds me that a lot of people think that you can see illness and you can see who’s vulnerable,” she said. “But if you look at me, you might not know.”

The world has suddenly changed with the spread of the coronavirus. Schools and colleges have closed, jobs have gone remote, people have been laid off, weddings have been canceled. In the midst of unprecedented disruption, young people in particular are heading inside and  turning to the internet to find solace through virtual hang-outs and checking their symptoms on TikTok. But such precautions aren’t new for plenty of people, who are suddenly finding themselves in widespread company.

Gracie Van Brunt, a 25-year-old songwriter from Boston, Massachusetts, is used to seclusion: Following a successful bone marrow transplant, she’s been quarantined inside her house for 9 months. And she’s worried that the coronavirus will still be a problem by summer, which is when her year-long medical quarantine is set to finish. Under normal circumstances, she should be safe to go outside. But these aren’t normal times, and there’s reason for her worries. Experts say they don’t know how long social distancing recommendations are going to last, and the looming threat of the pandemic could put her at risk for complications once again, especially if those around her don’t comply to the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines.

But Van Brunt has grown accustomed to life inside. She also found a curious side hustle: as an unofficial mentor. “All my friends are reaching out to me like, ’How are you doing this, this is so boring, what am I supposed to do?’” she said with a laugh.

Because her friends are suddenly very online, Van Brunt has taken to posting daily quarantine tips to her Facebook and Twitter pages. She suggests making schedules and to-do lists, and taking things day by day; personally, she loves using the time to practice new makeup looks. And she’s happy to share her expertise on isolation now that so many others are in the same boat.

“Never in a million years did I imagine that other people would be having to think about this,” she said.

According to the National Health Council, 40 percent of Americans have a chronic health condition of some kind, and therapies and risk mitigation can vary greatly from person to person. But for many, taking precautions has been part of daily life since well before the current pandemic.

“I have already been carrying hand sanitizer and wearing an N95 mask in large groups of people since I started treatment,” Audra Carlisle, 24, says. She was diagnosed with classical Hodgkin's lymphoma in November of 2019 and has been undergoing treatment since, including chemotherapy. “Now it’s just a lot more serious.”

Carlisle works as a learning experience designer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and has been performing her job remotely since the school made the shift to online learning. She’s spending her days working, FaceTiming with friends, talking with her online cancer support group, and watching Bon Appetit videos with her dogs.

Before the spread of COVID-19, Carlisle was feeling optimistic. She’s close to being finished with treatment, and almost all of the cancer cells in her body are gone, a prognosis which makes her feel like she is “winning right now! But that could be taken away from me in an instant because someone decided it was more important to go out and be reckless than to help me survive.”

Social distancing can be difficult — it’s lonely and, by design, isolating. But as Dr. Darien Sutton-Ramsey, an emergency physician in New York, told MTV News, it’s crucial that people follow guidelines in order to help #flattenthecurve, a term that refers to the spike in contagion rates that may occur in the coming weeks. Doing so not only helps protect an already fragile health care system from being overloaded, it helps protect vulnerable people from potentially severe cases of COVID-10, too.

“It is frustrating when people don't realize what we're up against,” he said. “Even if you get this virus, you may not have a problem. But when you’re participating in social events and not actively socially distancing yourself, you are potentiating the virus to infect vulnerable people. And when they’re affected, that's when shit hits the fan.”

But distancing isn’t where solidarity ends, and plenty of people are asking those with the ability to help their community members if they can. “There are a lot of little things I can’t do right now, from grocery shopping to getting my dogs groomed,” Carlisle said. People at lower risk can help out by joining a mutual aid program, checking in with neighbors, and donating to organizations and funds supporting those who are vulnerable. But she also stressed the importance of checking in (”From afar!,” she added) whenever and however possible.

In the meantime, Carlisle will continue her chemo infusions every other week, wear her N95 mask, and use her hand sanitizer. And she’ll cancel the plans she had for a party celebrating the end of her cancer treatment.

“That’s really hard to let go of,” she said. “But if there’s anything that cancer has taught me, it's that life doesn't always go the way you expect it to.”

You can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Not everyone has the option to stay at home, but if you can, you should! Social distancing is the new normal, and we’re here to help.