How People With Weakened Immune Systems Are Navigating The Coronavirus People with compromised or supressed immune systems are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. They are figuring out how to get by during this time of heightened concern about infections.
NPR logo

How People With Weakened Immune Systems Are Navigating The Coronavirus

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/819124774/819439728" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How People With Weakened Immune Systems Are Navigating The Coronavirus

How People With Weakened Immune Systems Are Navigating The Coronavirus

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/819124774/819439728" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And we've just heard about worries over the spread of the coronavirus, something that certainly concerns everybody. But for those who are immune-compromised, the risk of infection is especially high. From member station KQED, Laura Klivans reports that people in this situation need to be more vigilant than ever before.

LAURA KLIVANS, BYLINE: Massage therapist Candace Palmerlee lives in a suburb northeast of San Francisco. Her daily routine may sound familiar.

CANDACE PALMERLEE: I'm careful about door handles. I always put my sleeve over my hand, or I touch things with my elbow instead of my fingers. And I'm constantly washing my hands.

KLIVANS: But Palmerlee hasn't been doing this for just a few weeks. She's been doing it for more than a year. That's because she has a rare autoimmune disease that, among other things, weakens her lungs.

PALMERLEE: In my support group, we joke that oh, wow, you know, everybody else is finally living the way we live every day.

KLIVANS: To control her illness, she takes two medications that suppress her immune system. This means she's immunocompromised. Millions of Americans have a weakened immune system, says Dr. Paul Volberding. He runs the AIDS Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco.

PAUL VOLBERDING: There are a number of ways that parts of the immune system can be damaged. Age is one that does it - cancer, cancer chemotherapy, viruses like HIV.

KLIVANS: And medications that intentionally suppress the immune system. Volberding says these are common for conditions like asthma, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.

VOLBERDING: Being immunocompromised might not so much increase your likelihood of getting infected with something like COVID-19, but it might make the outcome of that infection much worse.

KLIVANS: One autoimmune disease that many Americans live with is Type 1 diabetes. Aaron Kowalski is among them. He's also the president of JDRF, an organization that funds research on Type 1 diabetes.

AARON KOWALSKI: I think the community right now is scared.

KLIVANS: Kowalski says that when Type 1 diabetics get sick in any way, managing the disease becomes much more difficult and can be fatal.

KOWALSKI: The fear in coronavirus is, if I get sick, what will happen, knowing that illness and diabetes are a very difficult combination?

KLIVANS: Some people have multiple health issues compounding the problem. San Francisco-based community activist Chip Supanich is HIV positive, has pulmonary issues and is on chemotherapy for cancer. Also, he's almost 60.

CHIP SUPANICH: I have never really paid attention to what I touch and in what order (laughter) aside from after using the bathroom.

KLIVANS: Now he's washing his hands after he touches most everything. Supanich, who lives alone, says his social routine has completely changed since the outbreak.

SUPANICH: I won't be seeing friends much because you don't know who has it, and I'm extremely sensitive. So that precaution is - you know, not seeing anyone is really hard for me.

KLIVANS: He knows that loneliness is bad for health, too, but he'll take being alone over getting the virus. Candace Palmerlee, the massage therapist, found out the morning of our interview that she had tested positive for the virus, probably transmitted through her kids.

PALMERLEE: Well, my - I'd say my stomach dropped out.

KLIVANS: Now Palmerlee, her wife and her kids are all under mandatory quarantine. For NPR News, I'm Laura Klivans in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.