Cautious Kansans understand severity of COVID-19 and care about their neighbors

November 21, 2023 3:33 am

Those of us who remain cautious of COVID-19 understand science — and care about our neighbors, writes Rebecca Barrett-Fox. (Getty Images)

Opinion editor Clay Wirestone recently called those who mitigate against COVID-19 infection “terrified,” comparing them to vaccine skeptics in their rejection of science. On the contrary, we are acting with caution because we understand science — and because we care about our neighbors.

I moderate Still COVIDing in Kansas, a Facebook group for people who work to avoid getting or spreading COVID-19. In addition to geographic groups, there are online groups for parents, religious believers, people in specific occupations, singles, medically fragile people, and more. Some groups have a few dozen members, and others have thousands. Members share reviews of respirators and air purifiers — items every Kansan should have ready in case they test positive for COVID-19. We read reports about wastewater levels of COVID-19 so that we can plan hospitalizations and medical appointments — a common place for infections to occur — for times when we’re less likely to be treated by contagious health care workers. We share advice for managing vaccination side effects and COVID-19 infection symptoms. We plan funerals for loved ones, knowing that mourners infectious with the illness that killed the deceased might attend. We help each other navigate travel, work, and worship alongside people who mistakenly think COVID-19 is akin to a cold, when, in reality, it can so severely damage your mitochondria as to kill you.

We also advocate for vaccinations and other mitigation strategies. This fall, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices considered not authorizing the most recent vaccine for those not deemed “at risk,” but because of the work of people who are COVID-cautious, every Kansan more than 6 months old was able to get vaccinated. Without us, those who, like the opinion editor, choose to “vax and relax” might not even have the choice to be vaccinated.

We also discuss peer-reviewed scholarly research published in journals like “Science,” “Nature,” “Cell,” and “JAMA.” From the work of scientists, we’ve learned to respect this virus. It is not seasonal but is high year-round, with further spikes in the summer, after the return to in-person schooling, and throughout the winter holidays. It doesn’t affect only the elderly and infirm (and, even if it did, that would be a reason for the rest of us to take it seriously, not a reason to ignore it). Earlier this fall, hospitalizations from COVID-19 increased three-fold among adults but nearly five fold among children. The rate of children dying of acute COVID-19 has increased over time, and all children who are infected face a 78% increase in the chance of new health problems after the acute infection period ends.

Thankfully, researchers have done “the difficult work of digging through statistics and case studies,” and the findings are clear: acute COVID-19 infections were the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2022, killing or contributing to the deaths of 7.5% of those who died. And because COVID-19 increases risk of heart disease and may increase the risk of cancer, it is a contributor to the top two killers of Americans. The third-leading cause of death? Unintentional injuries, like drug overdoses and accidents. We don’t yet have firm data on how the neurological damage caused by COVID-19 infection — sometimes dismissively called “brain fog” — contributes to unintentional injuries, but illicit drug use and alcohol use disorders, contributors to unintentional deaths, both increase in risk after infection.

As terrible as every one of the U.S.’s nearly 1.2 million confirmed deaths from acute COVID-19 is, the long-term consequences of rampant infection are likely to be worse for our society. Because COVID-19 can harm the lining of your blood vessels and alter the functioning of the blood cells in your bone marrow, it can harm every system of your body. After infection, you face an increased risk of diabetes (both type 1, for children, and type 2); kidney damage; neurological damage; hearing loss; stroke; cardiac arrest; stillbirth; prematurity, infant mortality, and maternal death; infertility for males and for females; autoimmune diseases; acute appendicitis; acute behavioral changes; an array of mental health disorders; and reactivation of the tics, obsessions, and mood instability associated with PANDAS/PANS. This list is only a fraction of the damage associated with COVID-19 infection, with each additional infection increasing the overall risk to our health.

As early as Spring 2020, scientists posited that this aerosol-spread disease damaged the immune system itself, so that we would be less able to fend off infections that we otherwise wouldn’t even notice. Three years later, we see the result: a drop in life expectancy for Americans not seen in a century, continued excess deaths compared to pre-pandemic life, and the disabling of our workforce that has led both to worker shortages and record-high disability claims. And all of this continues after our inaction already killed more than a million people, a result not near any of our peer nations. A future of frequent reinfection — which is the result of our current vaccination-only policy — is grim and, frankly, unforgivable.

The science is conclusive that we can reduce the chance that we’ll become infected or infect others by wearing respirators, cleaning indoor air, testing, and getting vaccinated. Enacting these simple measures is not living in fear — it’s accepting the reality that COVID-19 is here to stay for at least a bit longer and we don’t want to injure others by spreading it.

The opinion editor suggests that if the average person just got boosted, the pandemic would end. That’s been the strategy for nearly three years now, and it hasn’t worked. In fact, more people died after vaccinations became available than before — in Kansas, about twice as many people. That’s not because vaccines contribute to an increased death rate (adverse responses to vaccinations are rare) but because, unfortunately, vaccines aren’t currently highly effective at preventing infection or spread and don’t work well for long, and infection-derived “immunity” wanes as well, with neither vaccines nor infection conferring protection for a full year, which is the length of time between approved vaccines. By the time you get your next vaccination, any protection you have will be from the COVID-19 infection last year’s vaccine didn’t prevent. In short, if vaccination is your only strategy, you’ll likely be infected as often as your protection wears off or when a new variant evolves that can evade current vaccination. We hope for sterilizing vaccines, which would prevent infection, but, while scientists work for that, if the only measure you take to prevent infection is vaccination, you will probably be spreading COVID-19 before you realize you’re contagious.

Most of us who mitigate know it’s unlikely that we will die from acute COVID-19 — but we also want to avoid the short-term disruption of illness for our families, especially if, like many workers, we lack paid sick leave, which was only briefly part of our national COVID-19 response but ended when vaccinations were more promising in their effectiveness. But most importantly we protect ourselves from COVID-19 because we want to break the chain of transmission that disproportionately hospitalizes children, elders, and disabled people and has killed, widowed, and orphaned the poor and people of color at such a dramatically higher rate than affluent white people. We mitigate because we love Kansas and know that COVID-19 kills rural people at a higher rate than those in urban areas. We mitigate in solidarity and because it is practice for caring for each other when even harder crises strike.

Readers who want to reduce the chance that they’ll get or spread COVID-19 will find themselves welcomed and encouraged among COVID-cautious groups, and I hope they will join us.

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is an author and activist in Harvey County. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Rebecca Barrett-Fox
Rebecca Barrett-Fox

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is the author of "God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right" (University Press of Kansas) and many scholarly articles about religion, hate, and politics. In addition to her work as an academic, she is an activist for educational and health equity. She lives in Harvey County, Kansas.