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What it means to be immunocompromised amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Millions of Americans are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 because they’re immunocompromised. But for these vulnerable individuals who make up roughly 3% of the adult population, what it means to be immunocompromised amidst a global pandemic is a question that requires further understanding.

A majority of this erstwhile 3% have continually asked questions that border on an imaginary line that to date, still needs to be highlighted in the current research surrounding Covid-19. Questions such as can vaccinated immunocompromised persons, much like the rest of the vaccinated population, take off their masks in most public spaces and move freely throughout their days with greater peace of mind? There has never been a sure answer.

In pursuit of knowing the answers to what it means to be “immunity-challenged”, let us first dissect the basics.

WHO is “immunocompromised”?

In general terms, people who have a weakened immune system are considered immunocompromised. A person can become immunocompromised in different ways, and different instances that affect health conditions. You may be considered as one either through immunosuppression or through immunodeficiency.

Immunosuppression is when your immune system is deliberately weakened with medications, for example, after an organ transplant. Immunodeficiency is when the body cannot produce enough certain blood cells to defend against infection. A person can be immunodeficient at birth (Primary immunodeficiency) or can become immunodeficient later in life due to an illness or medication (Secondary immunodeficiency).

Transplant recipients, some cancer survivors and people living with HIV, and the elderly make count for most of the 3% of Americans who are considered to be immunocompromised.

WHAT does this mean for someone classified as immunocompromised?

When you are immunocompromised it only means that your immune system is weakened, either by a disease or by medication. This means you are more likely to get an infection and more likely to have a severe illness if you are infected than someone who is not immunodeficient.

In this pandemic, being immunocompromised means being at a higher risk of contracting and getting infected with COVID-19 and its variants. Recent case studies in relation to vaccine efficacy have shown that a number of immunocompromised people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine have not been responsive on a positive scale and on some levels, were not completely protected.

In essence, these studies have shown that immunocompromised people do not register high immune responses to vaccines and this leaves them vulnerable to the virus even after getting a shot.

WHY does this outcome affect the immunocompromised?

Having low responses to vaccines, or any medication that stimulates the immune system to provide protection makes the immunocompromised highly vulnerable to infection. Being less responsive to the vaccines that are currently being rolled out the whole world over puts the immunocompromised person on target for severe Covid-19.

The increasing spread of the delta variant and the data showing that even vaccinated people can spread the virus does not mean well for someone who is considered to be immunocompromised.

Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2, as we all have been informed of and have come to know, is a respiratory virus that causes serious lung infections. Other lung viruses, such as the flu virus, can make people with weak immune systems seriously unwell. The assumption that COVID-19 does not affect people in the same way, has been proven wrong. It is no less different in terms of severity with the damaging effects of other coronavirus strains on the immunocompromised.

Being immunocompromised is not an all-or-nothing thing. Some people have mild symptoms; others have life-threatening ones. The bottom line reads that people with weakened immune systems need to be extra careful in the face of the current pandemic.

WHERE does safety begin for the immunocompromised?

Getting inoculated with the Covid-19 vaccine is the first line of protection for everyone including the immunocompromised. Even when the studies show that the efficacy has been low particularly in the elderly, transplant recipients, cancer patients, or people on medications that have suppressed immune response.

Recently, the US along with the first world order is pushing for the swift release of a booster strategy. Evidently, the vaccine rollout may not have been as effective in terms of full protection against the virus. But this does not mean it doesn’t work, it only shows that even the vaccinated are at risk with the threat of new mutations on the rise.

Some people that account past the 3% of the general population of Americans who are immunocompetent who have been administered with shots in late December 2020 or early January of this year, along with the immunocompromised, could need booster shots to increase their neutralizing antibodies. Experts on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisory panel are largely supportive of giving a third dose to boost immunity and have called on the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) to expedite their move.

The third vaccine dose aims to provide potential benefits for the general population in terms of added protection against possible infection. Statistics have shown that being vaccinated even with the first dose has lessened the chances of being hospitalized and has resulted in lesser deaths connected to Covid-19.

HOW should an immunocompromised person live through this pandemic?

The truth is it’s not simple as it is. Being immunocompromised makes it a whole lot difficult to adjust to certain protocols dictated by the new normal, but nevertheless, it always makes sense to be more careful when it comes to the risk of exposure.

If you are immunocompromised, you should;

  • Continue to take your regular medications as prescribed to stay healthy and out of the hospital.

  • Make sure you have an emergency supply of your medications.

  • If you normally go to the hospital for treatment, continue to go unless you hear otherwise.

  • If you have been in close contact with someone who has been unwell, phone the hospital before your appointment so that they can keep staff and other patients safe.

Studies are being done to understand how the Covid-19 vaccine affects immunocompromised people and the type of immune response they develop.

It is only a matter of time when medical science can finally have the last full measure against the pandemic and hopefully, in the course of discovering the cure, the immunocompromised will be extended the protection they need against infection and exposure.

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