A word to the at-risk, from one of the at-risk

A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Lake Success, N.Y. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved faster testing protocols as the viral outbreak continues to spread worldwide. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)


I write to you today as a member of the vulnerable population. As one of those with “underlying conditions.” I’m not that old. I’m 51. But I’ve had two strokes, because of high blood pressure, which now is treated with three medications. Like much of Kentucky, if the state surveys are to be believed, I need to lose weight.

Since I grasped the threat of the coronavirus as real, I’ve had an overriding goal – I’d rather not get it, if I can avoid it. I don’t think it would go well if I did.

Many of you reading these words feel the same way. You have hypertension or heart disease or lung disease. You have a compromised immune system, or you’re diabetic. Or, maybe you’re 65 or older, or a smoker.

It’s to all of us that I’m writing today, but I hope everyone else will listen in to the conversation.

Because all of us, the COVID compromised, have to understand – in a little while, the world is going to start moving without us. People are going to go back to work, and they’re going to go to the grocery and have parties and, while it won’t be back to business as usual, it will be back to business.

No matter how the re-start goes, no matter what precautions are taken, they can’t make it safe enough for the at-risk population to be a part of it – unless there’s an effective treatment, or a vaccine. They’ll try. Social distancing will be the law of the land – or maybe the guideline of the globe – for at least a year.

But until there’s a vaccine, I don’t think you’re going to see many of us at-riskers at a ballgame or movie. We’re not going to be in restaurants, or at church.

And you might say, well, that’s no way to live. How can you let fear rule your life? Here’s how I look at it – if you see a truck up the road headed right for you, do you stand there, or get out of the way?

Let me tell you about this truck. If the virus goes bad, it’s scary, and it goes wrong at an alarming rate for the vulnerable population. This virus attacks your lungs. It squeezes your chest until you struggle to breathe. When it’s bad, people get very sick. It can cause cardiac problems. If there’s a weakness in your system, it can exploit it. You leave your house in an ambulance, your family standing there wondering if they’ll ever see you again. Your body fights it, and if you’re lucky you get by on oxygen in the hospital and start to beat it.

But if you don’t, you wind up on a ventilator. Your lungs fill with fluid and begin to harden. Your body lacks oxygen. To give you a chance, to buy you some time, to get oxygen to your brain and elsewhere, the ventilator will breathe for you. Before a tube is put down your throat, maybe you get to make a phone call, and you get to speak to a few of your loved ones, if you can, between the coughing and the struggling, and you’d better make that a good call, because you can’t be sure at this point if there’s another one.

Then they give you an injection, put you into a coma, put a tube down your throat and into your lungs, and wait. And there you are. In a hospital room alone, unconscious, suspended above a fine line between life and death, unable to even hope or pray, with a machine doing your breathing. I have no desire to be in that position.

When you hear someone is in intensive care and on a ventilator, that’s the battle they’re fighting. And if they fight through it, they’re one of the lucky ones. And even then they could have a long recovery once they get out of the hospital.

I’m sorry to speak in graphic terms, but this is why we have done all this. We have shut down society to try to keep people safe, to try to give people a chance at a ventilator if they need it, because if this virus breaks out, we could lost the ability to offer even that choice to some people, as happened in Italy.

I want no part of that. And if we can keep people from it, I feel like it is incumbent on us to do so. And if people are suffering economic calamity and pain, I’m sorry, it still pales in comparison to what I just described, even for those who survive it. And you folks out protesting and shouting down a governor while he’s trying to talk about the number of people in Kentucky who went through it that very day, and speaking about the number of people dead or in ICU, as far as I’m concerned, you are driving and honking through the funeral procession. You’re disrespecting those who died, and their families. You don’t care.

My head understands you. But that’s how my heart reacts.

You have a point. You just didn’t make it the right way. Time and score, folks. The problem is your viewpoints are shared by a lot of good people who aren’t out there trying to shout down a governor but who nonetheless fear for their futures, for health insurance and jobs and businesses. The protests may be political but the sentiment is real, and I won’t dismiss it just because of a political operative with a bullhorn and a sorry track record. I hear you. Which brings me to what I really set out to say in this thing, and I say it to all my compromised brothers and sisters, hoping you’ll at least consider it.

The country, at some point, has to come out of its house, and live. It will be tentative and halting. It will be more cautious than anyone wants, but it has to get going. The status quo is untenable. Students, this fall, will be back to school. How will that work? I have no idea. How will those of us who are at risk deal with it if there are kids at home? We’ll have to figure it out.

In short, it’s going to be the job of a lot of us to realize that one of the keys to this economy starting back and things getting moving is for those of us who are at risk to step out of the way and let it.

This will not be an all-or-nothing rollout.

The whistle is going to blow, and some of us are going to have to stay on the sidelines. Some of us won’t, and we’ll venture out, and the virus will sort us out, for better or worse. I pray for the better. I do. And some will be fine. And some of those clamoring that the virus only kills old people will venture out too, and find out differently, though I hope not.

But the bottom line is that, for my compromised friends and me, the safety measures will go on. And if we do venture out, we’ll be masked up and gloved down. Just like we are now.

I don’t know when I’ll see my next sports event in person, if there’s no treatment for this thing. I don’t know when I’ll sit down in a restaurant again.

But here’s what I understand, that I hope most people in the same boat will – it’s going to be fine for young people to do those things. It’s fine for those with immunity. We can’t wait until it is safe for everybody. And some of us are going to have to be patient. And smart.

Some of us will make sacrifices, and some will have to choose between job and health or figure out long-term ways of working remotely, and some of us might just go plain stir-crazy until we grow numb and take our chances. Some of us might lose jobs or friendships or even freedoms. But the way I figure it, I’m due to make a sacrifice. Nobody ever tried to draft me, or send me into a war.

So maybe I owe it to my country to lay low while this deal gets going again, until the virus is figured out. Maybe I owe it to my country to protect myself, and not complain every time someone goes out into public that it could kill me – because it won’t, if I’m not doing careless things.

That’s how I’m looking at it. I’m not presuming to tell you how to think or what to do. But if you’re on Team Compromised with me, this is where we are, until they come up with a vaccine or a treatment. And I know, it’s not fair – especially to a lot of you who HAVE made great sacrifices for this country.

But it’s what we need to expect, and to prepare for.

We will get through this. It just might take a while. Be safe everybody.