This op ed was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer online and in print on January 18, 2022. I’ve posted it here for people who ran into a pay wall when trying to access the article online.
In a recent interview, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that it was “really encouraging news” that a large study found 75% of vaccinated people who died of COVID-19 had “at least four comorbidities” and “were unwell to begin with.” This statement was a dangerous betrayal of people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. People like me.
Almost 30 years ago, I got sick with a virus that led to myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) — a debilitating neuroimmune disease that leaves me with widespread pain, brain fog, low blood pressure, and other symptoms. Since then, as is common for people with chronic illnesses, I have acquired several more overlapping conditions. My poor health means I am at high risk for complications if I catch COVID-19.
I am not alone. In fact, 40% of American adults are at increased risk of severe complications from COVID-19 because of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other common illnesses. One study estimated that 30 million people live with five or more chronic conditions. If you yourself are not at high risk, then you almost certainly know someone who is.
When the CDC director described the deaths of people who were already unwell as encouraging, it was yet another reminder that disabled lives are not valued the same as healthy lives.
This view is hurting me and tens of millions of disabled and chronically ill people. (It also sparked a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy. Walensky has argued her comments were taken out of context and affirmed the importance of protecting people with comorbidities.)
From the very beginning of the pandemic, news reports and official statements have emphasized that “only” the elderly and previously ill were at risk for complications and death from COVID-19, as if those lives don’t matter as much as everyone else’s. Every time it has been suggested that we let COVID-19 burn through our population to reach “herd immunity,” I hear the message loud and clear: My life is not worth protecting.
I am vaccinated, masked, and physically distanced to an extreme in hopes of avoiding COVID-19 infection, but I need everyone around me to help protect me, too. People who choose to remain unvaccinated or who stop wearing masks are not just taking a risk for themselves. They are more likely to pass the virus to others. Right now, so many people are infected that my only option is to stay at home. The flood of COVID-19 patients to hospitals in our region has clogged emergency rooms, increased infections among health-care workers, and caused the cancellation of elective surgeries. This in turn makes it more difficult for chronically ill people to get the health care they need to manage their conditions, which will lead to more suffering and poor outcomes.
We have all lost so much to the pandemic, but we cannot sacrifice the lives of disabled, elderly, or chronically ill people in our rush to return to normalcy. Their lives matter just as much as anyone else’s; their deaths are just as tragic.
No one should be encouraged because COVID-19 kills disabled and chronically ill people more often than it kills healthy people. Instead, this fact should motivate everyone to continue taking the actions they can to protect the vulnerable members of our population. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 will save lives. Masks are inconvenient, but they help prevent infection. Getting vaccinated and boosted is even better.
By minimizing the significance of the deaths of people who are chronically ill, Walensky contributed to the narrative that they are not worth protecting. We need public health officials to remind the public that even if they are personally at low risk of severe illness, their choices and actions could save the lives of vulnerable people. And just because someone happens to have a chronic illness doesn’t mean their life isn’t worth saving.