PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Earlier this year, as coronavirus pandemic restrictions eased and masks were shed, people celebrated.
But for about 12 million Americans who have suppressed or compromised immune systems, these last few months have been a time of enormous uncertainty and fear, according to Eastern Virginia Medical School’s infectious disease expert Dr. Edward Oldfield.
That number, about four percent of the United States population, includes organ transplant patients, people with diseases like Crohn’s, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and those battling leukemia or lymphoma.
The easing of COVID restrictions is only making life more dangerous for them, because they are not only at greater risk for serious complications from COVID-19, but also may be less protected by the vaccine.
“It’s really a very difficult situation for these people that are immunosuppressed,” Oldfield said.
Oldfield encourages immunosuppressed patients to get vaccinated because of the increased risk of severe COVID-19 complications.
He cautions, though, the vaccine may not be as effective.
“What we’ve seen is the antibody response, the protective effect, is lower in people who have immunocomprising conditions or are on immunosuppressants,” he said.
In transplant patients, the vaccine response is particularly poor, with only half developing any antibody response at all, according to Oldfield.
Without a great number of people getting vaccinated, these patients may never be free of the threat of COVID-19.
“You’re in this never-never land and you don’t know when it’s going to end,” Oldfield said. “They may be stuck with their masks and social distancing until COVID goes away.”
The U.S. has not reached herd immunity, but Oldfield hopes thinking of these 12 million Americans may encourage others to get their vaccines.
“We really need to get everyone vaccinated to protect these other, vulnerable people that even with all their best efforts, remain at risk,” he said.
Oldfield recommends that people with compromised or suppressed immune system speak to their doctors about ways to evaluate and boost their protection.
First, anyone can get a COVID-19 antibody test performed to see whether they responded to the vaccine.
That test won’t reveal how protected a person is from the virus, according to Oldfield, but if the vaccine produced any level of antibodies, a COVID-19 infection may lead to less severe consequences.
If the test came up negative, Oldfield recommends discussing with your provider the option of getting a third vaccine dose as a booster.
An infusion of monoclonal antibodies is another protective option to bring up with a doctor, according to Oldfield.
Lastly, Oldfield advises any immunosuppressed or compromised patients continue to exercise caution, especially around unvaccinated people and in situations where vaccination statuses are unknown.