Photo by Tai's Captures on Unsplash

For most people, pandemic anxiety is on the wane. With vaccinations widely available and disease activity in decline in Charleston County, things are getting better. Yet for some of us, it may now be more dangerous than ever.

Rutledge

Some 3-4% of Americans are immunocompromised. I know this because I am one of them. Someone you know may also be one. For any number of reasons — autoimmune disease, cancer, organ transplantation — our immune systems have been compromised, and a percentage of us are unable to produce antibodies to fight the coronavirus. This is true even after receiving vaccination.

I knew my immune system would have difficulty producing antibodies, but I was still unprepared when, a few weeks after my second dose of vaccine, I received a negative antibody test. The test showed that my body is unable to recognize the telltale spike proteins of the coronavirus. Put another way: I am as vulnerable as ever. With my underlying conditions, if I get sick, I will honestly be fighting for my life. Again, I am not alone. Millions of others are in the same predicament. My worry is that they may not know it.

The CDC has been slow to acknowledge the vulnerability of so many of us or to counsel those who are immunocompromised to immediately seek the advice of their doctors. Only recently have a few articles begun to emerge, clarifying just how dangerous this moment is for us. After I posted about my own negative antibody test on social media, many people reached out to me. The first two calls I received were from friends who are immunocompromised and vaccinated, but did not know if they had developed antibodies. After testing, it turned out that neither friend had detectable antibodies. They were vulnerable and hadn’t known.

To be clear, most people don’t need to worry about their antibodies. The vaccines are extremely effective in those with healthy immune systems. Those of us who have medical vulnerabilities are likely already aware of them. Yet it’s now more important than ever that we do what we can to protect ourselves. Just as others are loosening their standards, taking off their masks and giving in to pandemic fatigue, and just as newer, more contagious variants circulate in the population, those who are immunocompromised are put at increased risk. Given the numbers — upwards of 10 million of us are immunocompromised — you almost certainly know someone who is affected.

Immunocompromised people aren’t the only ones currently at higher risk. The community of color has suffered disproportionately from the effects of COVID, an experience that continues as the pandemic wears on. Thirty percent of Black Americans report they know someone who died of COVID during the first year of the pandemic. According to the CDC, Black Americans are nearly three-times as likely to be hospitalized for COVID and nearly twice as likely to die from it as white Americans. The numbers are actually worse for Latinx and indigenous Americans. While some of us are compromised due to our pre-existing medical conditions, others remain vulnerable due to race or ethnicity in a country where systemic racial inequities have led to disparate health outcomes. One of many examples is the higher rate of diabetes in the Black community, a condition which is linked to more severe cases of COVID.

The more we understand just how many of us are at risk, the more we may be moved to act. We may get vaccinated not only for individual protection, but in order to protect the most vulnerable. We may wear masks not because it is strictly required, but because it may still save someone else’s life. We may tell the stories of those for whom these days are especially dangerous not to scare each other, but rather to hear each other and to help. Sure, we have all heard the voices of naysayers and anti-vaxxers, those for whom individual preferences matter more than the health of the group. But most people, when given the chance, will do what they can to help. They just need to know. I’ve written this column so that you’ll know. 

It was with this in mind that we mailed two packages to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine last week. The first package contained five vials of my own blood for research trials into how to help immunocompromised patients. The second package contained homemade cookies to thank the researchers. When we initially reached out to the team at Johns Hopkins after my negative antibody test, they jumped at the chance to help. My doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina were also quick to offer their support. Everybody understood how much was at stake. 

I don’t know if I’ll ever develop antibodies, but I do know that working with others for the benefit of all is inspiring. For some of us, it may now be more dangerous than ever. Yet for each of us, it is a moment of decision. We can choose to help by getting vaccinated, continuing to mask when asked, and remembering the most vulnerable. We can choose to love our neighbor.

Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister at Circular Church.