At Risk Perspectives

Some Athens residents are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and have altered their lives in order to avoid the disease.

Marlene Call set up a sterilization station in her Athens home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. When someone leaves the house and wishes to re-enter, their body and everything they are wearing or holding must be disinfected. Light switches, food packages, shoes, gloves and door handles are all sterilized after a simple touch. Call is a member of a group of people deemed at a higher risk for severe illness if they contract COVID-19.

Call said a simple cold can turn into pneumonia due to her asthma, and doctors have said she has “bad lungs.” With a 4-year-old at home to protect from the virus, Call is taking precautions against the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created a list of groups at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, which includes those 65 and older and those living in a nursing home or long-term care facility. The CDC’s list also categorizes people with chronic lung disease, asthma, serious heart conditions, diabetes and other conditions as those who could become severely ill from COVID-19.

People who are immunocompromised are also at risk for complications — which includes those who take immune system-weakening medication to treat other illnesses, those undergoing cancer treatment and those who have immune deficiencies.

Athens resident Priscilla Harrison, 65, has polycystic kidney disease. She received a kidney transplant 20 years ago and remains on immunosuppressant medication. The drugs weaken her immune system to reduce her body’s reaction to the foreign organ.

Harrison hasn’t left her house since March 1 out of fear that if she leaves her house and contradicts the coronavirus, it could kill her.

“It scares the crap out of me,” Harrison said.

Harrison remains isolated at home, sanitizing her home and coping with spurts of depression. She is not alone in her experience.

Call, who has remained at home since March 13, has a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s of public health in epidemiology as well as a doctorate in nursing. She now works as a professor and said her experience in the medical field is a “double-edged sword.”

“I know how to handle stuff but I also know how bad things can be,” Call said. “Thinking about it and the risk can freak you out.”

Susan Lyon, 51, has osteoarthritis and takes immunosuppressants to manage her pain.

When Lyon, an administrative assistant for Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste, realized she was at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, she started to work from home and self-isolated.

Lyon, who lives alone, called her experience both aggravating and scary because there is no estimate as to how long she must live in isolation.

“I have to think very hard if I want to go outside, even for a walk or to go grocery shopping. I have to create a plan to ensure I’m safe,” Lyon said. “It feels like this has been going on for a year, but it’s just my fifth week at home.”

Lyon stays at home to protect her daughter and her 90-year-old father, who lives in a nursing home. She said that although she is someone medically at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, she is not concerned about her own health. Instead, she worries about those younger or “more at risk” that she could put in danger.

“As easily as I can contract COVID-19, I can easily pass it to someone else,” Lyon said. “That’s what gives me the most anxiety.”

She said while it is frustrating to stay at home for weeks, her anger is directed toward those who choose to ignore shelter-in-place and social distancing protocols. Call and Harrison shared her sentiment.

Harrison said she wishes those protesting or not abiding by social distancing protocols would take a step in her shoes. Harrison has remained at home for weeks and will continue doing so until it is safe for herself, her family and others, she said.

In Call’s position as a medical worker and professor, she said she finds the lack of willingness to stay home for others’ health “shocking.” She said it is another reason why she chooses to stay indoors with her son.

Lyon said she doesn’t want to become a burden on the medical field, so she isolates at home and advises the public to do the same.

“We all need to social distance and stay home not just out of fear of the coronavirus,” Lyon said. “This is a time where we sacrifice our wants and do what we need, for those who are at a higher risk and for the medical workers.”

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