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Coronavirus: Coping With Uncertainty

Questions prevail about risk, existing health conditions and daily routines


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

The other night I was so worried about the coronavirus that I took five milligrams of Ativan, but all it did was make me feel hung over. The next day, I ran four miles and walked another two. Neither helped.

“I shall die of eating an unwashed grape,” I said to my dog in my best Blanche DuBois impression.

I survived relapsed leukemia — with an apparent record of four stem cell transplants — and am worried that after all I’ve been through, COVID-19 will be the end of me. None of the available information has allayed my confusion and concern over who exactly is at the highest risk. You hear that the high-risk group is people over 60, then, people 70 and older. Or those with high blood pressure.

I am 65 and can tell you one thing: My blood pressure has been high.

On Meet the Press on Sunday, March 8, I heard Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, say, “the risk of getting into trouble with this infection … is overwhelmingly weighted towards people with underlying conditions and the elderly.”

Underlying conditions is so amorphous. I have chronic after effects from my treatment. Does that mean I have an underlying condition?

Questions About Immune Systems and the Coronavirus

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released coronavirus guidelines that stated “older adults” are  at higher risk but didn’t say what an older adult was. It said the high-risk group also includes “People who have serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.”

Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, clarified a little further during the CDC’s media telebriefing, saying that “starting at age sixty, there is an increasing risk of disease, and the risk increases with age.”

“People are trying to pinpoint what their risk is when they talk about older people with underlying health conditions. That’s a broad brush. Who doesn’t have an underlying condition?”

People with weakened immune systems are also said to be at risk. What makes for a weak immune system? Someone undergoing radiation or chemotherapy for cancer treatment has a weakened immune system, but a stem cell transplant can also make you more susceptible to infections.

“I have a lot of questions about this virus,” I wrote my nurse practitioner, “such as, should I curtail activities? Am I elderly and immunosuppressed?” I told her that I decided to cancel my registration to a New York City conference, but was unsure what other steps to take and where I fit in.

“I think you are mildly immune-suppressed, but not elderly,” she wrote. “I think avoiding crowds like the conference, and airplanes, is smart. Hand washing and Purell, as you know.”

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Confusion About Age and Risk

I am not the only “older adult” on edge about the coronavirus.

“I’m walking around with a little bit of a knot in my stomach,” said Amy Losak, 63, a public relations professional who lives in a New York suburb. “I take a statin, and I wonder: does that put me in a higher risk group? It seems to be controlled. People are trying to pinpoint what their risk is when they talk about older people with underlying health conditions. That’s a broad brush. Who doesn’t have an underlying condition?”

Dr. Wendy Harpham, 65, is an internist, a 29-year-survivor of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a writer and speaker who is not taking any chances, given her high risk due to immunodeficiency.

“Until we know more about transmissibility, I am not going to the gym, concerts, group dinners, etc. until I feel the risk is low,” the Dallas resident said in an email. “It’s hard on me when I get ill, so those activities are not worth the risk… I don’t want to live in fear or feel anxious. Making these choices and then focusing on all I can do is how I am coping.”

In Cleveland, 51-year-old freelance writer Nina McCollum said that three weeks ago, she and her fiancée started practicing “major social distancing.” Also, she now doesn’t visit her elderly mother, gets groceries delivered and stopped going to restaurants and the gym.

“I like being home, so this is fine for me,” said McCollum.

Amy Rogers, of Charlotte, N.C., said, “As a person who is sixty-four-years-old and taking an immunosuppressant, I’m thoroughly confused about how to stay healthy. I already wash my hands at least a dozen times a day, but still manage to get viral ailments that go around.”

Rogers is also worried about the supply chain of medicines if it gets interrupted.

Maintaining Routines of Life

Back in New York, Losak has made adjustments; for now, there are no trips to Manhattan to see Broadway shows. But “the routines of life have to continue,” she said. These include writing haiku “to take you out of yourself,” noticing the sound of a cardinal or walking to a local bagel place to get a coffee.

For my own routine, it is important to keep moving, and I was encouraged when my nurse practitioner said I could keep playing tennis and going to yoga and to the gym. The tennis clubs where I play are still open, but the closing of my neighbor, Mount Holyoke College, along with other area colleges, made the situation feel more dire.

Tennis is OK, because people are not so close to each other. But now I might have to try online yoga.

By Ronni Gordon
Ronni Gordon is a South Hadley, Mass.-based freelance writer and editor and a former newspaper reporter. She has written for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the alumni quarterlies of Smith and Vassar and elsewhere.

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