by Jennifer Crystal
I live in a high-rise apartment building with a common laundry room for hundreds of apartments. The long, narrow room is lined with ten washers and dryers, with barely enough space for one person to walk, much less two. My neighbors and I usually do an awkward dance, squeezing behind each other to get to the dryers, or letting someone push their laundry basket past before opening a front-loading washing machine that blocks the way.
This system worked just fine until the COVID-19 pandemic. In such a tight space, it’s impossible to practice social distancing, so I’ve learned to do my laundry at low-traffic times. If someone else is in the room when I arrive, I wait in the hallway for them to finish before entering. Then, wearing a mask and gloves, I disinfect the machines and hope that no one else will show up before I finish. Sometimes, if another person arrives, they do what I do: give a little understanding wave, and wait at the entrance of the room until I can load my machines and leave.
Yesterday, I was not so lucky. I was taking my clothing out of the dryer when two neighbors walked in: one masked, one unmasked. Though our building has a rule that residents must wear masks in common areas such as the lobby, the elevator, and the laundry room, many of my neighbors do not follow it. As an immunocompromised person, this makes me terribly nervous.
I’ve already had COVID-19, but we don’t know enough about individual immunity yet for me to feel confident that I can’t get reinfected. Moreover, despite my overall recovery—I’m still dealing with a lingering cough—I can’t say with absolute certainty that I’m no longer contagious. For my own safety and the safety of others, I wear a mask and assiduously follow social distancing guidelines.
I hope my neighbors will do the same, but as I learned in the laundry room, I can’t count on that. As the masked and unmasked people neared me with their laundry baskets, I politely asked, Would you mind waiting just one minute while I finish taking my laundry out, so we can stay six feet away from each other?” The masked neighbor looked a little taken aback. She didn’t wait, but she at least decided to load her clothes in a machine that was further away from mine. The unmasked neighbor pushed right past the masked neighbor, close enough to breathe on her, and started loading the dryer next to mine. I stopped what I was doing and backed away, but the only place to do so, without standing right next to the other neighbor, was the corner of the room. Still, I was only a foot or two away from each neighbor. I waited there, cornered until both neighbors finished and left.
When people don’t wear masks but keep their distance from others, their choice is personal. But when they don’t take this simple gesture and get too close to others, their choice infringes on another’s personal safety. Now that businesses are opening again, immunocompromised people would like to join the outside world, too, but they worry about how they can safely do so. They can take all the proper precautions: wearing a mask, keeping their distance, and washing their hands, but they can’t control what other people do. And if they live in a crowded area, or have to negotiate tight spaces like elevators, the prospect that others aren’t taking the necessary precautions keeps patients locked at home out of fear.
Part of the problem is that the immunocompromised don’t usually have a physical marker that flags them as such. Another high-risk group for COVID-19, the elderly, can usually be easily identified because of their age. People tend to give the elderly a wider berth on the sidewalk. They have designated shopping hours at grocery stores so they don’t need to come in contact with younger, unmasked people.
For the immunocompromised, especially those who are younger and otherwise don’t seem sick, staying safe isn’t so easy. Others may assume they’re healthy just by looking at them, and not think it’s a big deal when coming close. Even one of the EMTs who took me to the hospital when I first experienced COVID-19 symptoms said, before learning of my underlying conditions, Well, even if you have [COVID-19], you’re young and healthy, so you’ll be fine.”
Fortunately, I am fine. My recovery from COVID-19 has been slow, but steady, and I was never on a ventilator. Many other people have not been so lucky, and those who haven’t contracted the virus are rightfully scared of what could happen to them if they do.
When the pandemic first hit the U.S. and shelter-in-place orders went into effect, my plea to healthy citizens was to stay home, not just to protect themselves, but moreover to protect vulnerable citizens. Now, as areas start to reopen, my plea is, by all means, come out and enjoy yourselves—just please do so with the safety of others in mind. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and keep a respectful distance. That person you brush by in the grocery store could be immunocompromised. It could be me.
Additional COVID-19 and Lyme Disease Resources:
Blog: Corona With a Twist of Lyme
Blog: Corona With a Twist of Lyme: Part 2
Blog: Corona With a Twist of Lyme: Part 3
Video: Webinar with Dr. Cameron and Lyme-COVID-19 patient
Letter: GLA CEO Addresses COVID-19 and GLA Community
Letter: GLA Chairman on What We Can Learn from COVID-19 Response
GLA POV: Parallel Pandemics: COVID-19 and Lyme Disease
Blog: Q&A on COVID-19 and Lyme Disease with LLMD
Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. Her work has appeared in local and national publications including Harvard Health Publishing and The Boston Globe. As a GLA columnist for over six years, her work on GLA.org has received mention in publications such as The New Yorker, weatherchannel.com, CQ Researcher, and ProHealth.com. Jennifer is a patient advocate who has dealt with chronic illness, including Lyme and other tick-borne infections. Her memoir about her medical journey is forthcoming. Contact her via email below.