Health Advice



How people with compromised immune systems are staying safe amid coronavirus

Aubrey Whelan, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

PHILADELPHIA -- For Janine McAlonan, the fear of keeping loved ones safe during the coronavirus outbreak is terrifyingly familiar.

McAlonan's 13-year-old daughter, Lexi, has battled a rare form of lymphoma for years. Recently, she relapsed. And though she's entered in a clinical trial, with weekly intravenous treatments to boost her immune system, Lexi's ability to fight off disease is severely compromised.

Early this month, Lexi's oncologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia was recommending that she continue to go to school and live as normal a life as possible in between treatments, McAlonan said. But then the first cases of COVID-19 started emerging in the region.

"Within literally 48 hours, the tables turned. It was like, Lexi should be inside, not around anybody," McAlonan said. "Then I started panicking."

Lexi can receive some of her treatment at home in South Philadelphia. But McAlonan's fiance works in a supermarket, and is considered an essential worker even as other businesses close and employees work remotely to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Her oldest son, 20, works at a pizza shop and is still on the job, too. Using social distancing to lessen their chances of contracting the virus isn't possible through their jobs.

"My fiance has to go to work. He's on the front line. What do we do to protect Lexi?" McAlonan said. "It's just scary -- (the coronavirus outbreak) is like the oncology world we live with every day, but even more (serious). I lived like this for four years. I can't live in fear like this again."


But that's exactly what she and other families with immuno-compromised members are bracing for as the coronavirus outbreak worsens. For many medically fragile people, self-isolation is an especially difficult task -- their conditions require frequent in-person doctor visits, or treatment that can't be administered at home.

That's partly why it's so important that the healthy people practice social distancing as well, experts say -- to avoid spreading COVID-19 to people whose immune systems can't handle the virus, or whose medical needs make it impossible to completely self-isolate.

"All of these healthcare organizations can come up with best practices and strategies," said Siddharth P. Shah, the director of ambulatory nephrology and dialysis programs at Penn Medicine, whose patients are among those who must continue to leave the house to receive treatment. "But nothing is going to be more powerful or valuable than (the general public) reducing the spread and reducing the burden of the disease."

Physicians who treat other conditions that require daily or weekly treatment have also made efforts to help their patients stay on their course of treatment.


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