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Immunocompromised amid COVID-19: OU students voice concerns over lack of accommodation, communication

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Immunocompromised headshots

From left to right: Torey Henderson, Persephone Himes and Zach Williams.

Torey Henderson was enjoying her study-abroad trip in Italy when the first COVID-19 cases emerged in the country. 

“At first, we started making jokes because it just wasn't a big deal,” Henderson, an OU public relations senior, said. “Like, there's been some cases … (but) it's not gonna be a breakout like it was in China. And then its numbers just kept going up.”

Much to the dismay of several OU students traveling in Italy via OU Arezzo, the program shut down in early March and students were forced to return home. 

Henderson’s Journey to Italy program shut down as well, and she traveled back to Norman where she self-isolated in her cousin’s empty apartment for two weeks. Just days later, Italy went into lockdown as COVID-19 cases overwhelmed the nation’s hospitals. Currently, the death toll in Italy has amassed to over 35,000

Henderson said she was thankful to have a place to safely isolate when she returned home. Her twin sister is immunocompromised and has special needs. 

Her mother works in a hospital and is a single mom, so when Henderson isn’t in class, she spends much of her time at home taking care of her sister. 

Henderson’s sister is scheduled to undergo surgery before the start of the fall semester. Henderson said she is hesitant to return to campus because she fears she may not be able to care for her sister.

“It's one more person that could be bringing something back in, and if she gets (COVID-19), it's going to be a lot harder for her than it would be for someone else,” Henderson said. 

Despite pushback from students and employees, OU’s administration has remained strongly in support of mostly in-person classes for the fall semester. Members of the OU and Norman community held a “die-in” demonstration to protest OU’s handling of the virus. 

For immunocompromised students and their families, COVID-19 presents a very real threat. Some are hesitant to return, and some are unable to do so at all.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, people with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, HIV, or those who are immunocompromised are at higher risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19.

Persephone Himes, an OU business administration and accounting freshman, has lupus and was diagnosed when she was 8. She said she knew something was wrong when arthritis began to cause her pain while playing the violin. Knowing she had a family history of the disease, her family took her to the doctor where she tested positive. 

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack its own body and organs, and while it varies in severity, it affects the skin, joints and brains of those who have the disease. 

Lupus is known to suppress the immune system, and medicines used to treat it can weaken the body’s immune response even more, according to the Mayo Clinic

When Himes was a freshman at OU, she said she frequently had to miss class when her joints became too inflamed and painful to move. 

In an effort to manage her pain, Himes began to undergo chemotherapy. She said the goal of the chemo was to reduce her inflammation and improve her quality of life. 

“I was just sick all the time, and it was really hard for me to be able to go to class and be able to focus,” Himes said. “(After the pandemic hit), it wasn't really worth it for me at the time. It was more worth it for my health just to get back on track.”

The effects of chemo coupled with the pandemic made her decide to take a break from school, but she hopes to return to campus when her health improves. Himes said although she wants to return to school, she knows her immune system would not be strong enough to return to in-person instruction in the fall.

According to the results of a survey gauging students’ comfort levels of returning to campus released by OU, 27 percent of students said they would prefer all of their classes to take place in person and 26 percent of students surveyed said they would prefer all of their classes to be online. The survey included 4,491 responses and OU said it used the data to develop instructional plans and adjust students’ schedules for the fall semester. 

Prior to the spread of COVID-19, she said she took precautions when going out and did her best to avoid germs and pathogens. But now, she says chemotherapy has decimated her immune system, and she can’t leave her house without a mask, gloves and hand sanitizer.  

“I've been sick a lot, because my body is trying to reject (the chemo),” Himes said. “I've definitely come to terms with it and just come to realize that I just have to keep pushing forward.”

While Himes was forced to leave school for her own health, other students are being faced with the possibility of exposing their vulnerable loved ones to the deadly virus when they return to campus this fall. 

Second-year international and area studies graduate student Bailey Ashbaker said she is also apprehensive about returning to campus in the fall because her mother suffers from multiple sclerosis. 

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack the protective sheath over the nerve fibers in the spinal cord and creates communication disparities within the nervous system. Patients with MS often suffer from pain, loss of coordination and a suppressed immune system. 

MS is typically diagnosed during adulthood, and Ashbaker said her mother was diagnosed in her early 20s, and her grandmother also suffers from the illness. Based on her family history, Ashbaker said she worries about her own health because she may have a genetic predisposition to the illness.

Ashbaker said her mother’s MS symptoms have progressively gotten worse, and doctors have recommended she start a new treatment that will suppress her immune system even more. 

“She has to do a more experimental round of more intensive nerve immunotherapy ... (and) it makes her immune system a lot more compromised, and I feel worried about her because I know she doesn't want to stay inside all the time,” Ashbaker said.

Ashbaker said she plans to move into her own home before her mother begins the treatment to avoid possibly exposing her to the virus. Ashbaker says she doesn’t feel comfortable returning to campus and is worried the masking and social distancing procedures OU has put in place won’t be enough to stop the spread of the virus.

“(My mom) is younger and she's fairly healthy, but there's not enough people with MS who have gotten (COVID-19). People don't know how it's going to affect you physically,” Ashbaker said. 

According to the OSDH, younger people in the 18–35 age group make up the majority of COVID-19 cases in the state, with just over 35 percent of cases falling into this category. Eight deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded in the 18–35 category, accounting for 1.48 percent of the state’s total deaths. 

Petroleum geology junior Zach Williams said he is apprehensive about returning to campus not just for his own safety, but his mother's and sister’s as well. His sister, an OU staff member, is immunocompromised, and his mother has lupus and takes medicines that suppress her immune system. 

“Unfortunately, some of (my mother’s) medicines come with some dangerous side effects, and that doesn't bode well,” Williams said. 

Williams, a student with a disability, said the Accessibility and Disability Resource Center has not offered him any assistance since classes moved online during the spring semester. 

Williams, who is also a summer employee, said he received news of the new policies the center recently released to faculty, but has not been communicated with directly or as a student.

“It would just be nice if (the Accessibility and Disability Resource Center) could do more from a communication standpoint for the students who registered with them,” Williams said. “Students registered with (the center) need to know how to advocate for themselves.”

Williams said his issues with the center extend further than the recent pandemic complications. In the past, he said the center has caused him to take his finals late due to scheduling mistakes.

“As someone who suffers from memory issues and anxiety, this does not uphold an equitable learning environment,” Williams said.

Although Williams said he is confident he can work through the challenges the center poses, he said he is hesitant to return to campus and worries about his family’s health. 

He said all but two of his labs and one of his fall classes have moved online, and his sister will be working from home, but the threat of COVID-19 still weighs on him.

Accessibility and Disability Resource Center Director Chelle' Guttery said in an email to The Daily the center will continue to provide assistance to its students.

"We will discuss reasonable accommodations with the student, should they have a disability that increases their risk of infection and/or could experience complications because of infection," Guttery said.

Guttery said the center plans to offer clear masks to students and faculty members who interact with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

"Our university as a whole is focused on the health and safety of everyone and the (Accessibility and Disability Resource Center) mirrors this commitment," Guttery said.

Williams said the center’s current COVID-19 policies leave him with little time in between classes as he will have to hand-deliver his pen and paper exams to professors rather than use a previously-available dropbox. Williams said this new policy fails to consider students with mobility impairments, and increases person-to-person contact.

He said he is disappointed with the center’s response and wants to know how the center and the university are going to accommodate students who are disabled and keep them safe.

“How, as a student, am I going to be able to take exams on time and without worry of additional (COVID-19) exposure?” Williams said.

Overall, Williams said he is worried about bringing the virus home to his family even if he follows masking and social distancing protocols. 

“I do fear I may pick up (the virus),” Williams said. “Thinking of my mom and sister, they could come into contact with something I’ve come into contact with and be exposed. Being online would definitely be the best option.”

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