I’m immunocompromised, and I’ve never asked others to protect me

OPINION

BY ALEX LIESKE

“Get that child to the hospital RIGHT NOW.”

Those were the words that rang in my mother’s ears when she picked up the phone at midnight in the winter of 1984. She all but threw my father out of bed as they hastily got dressed, told my older brother to hold down the fort (he was 13), scooped me up (I was 5 years old at the time), and carried me to the car. I’d had a fever of 102 or above for 3 straight days. What seemed like an ordinary seasonal bout of the flu turned out to be a fight for my life. I was yellow (jaundiced) and anemic, and my spleen was considerably enlarged. All I remember is how calm my parents were while getting me to the hospital and their smiles and promises of all the ice cream that I could eat as we were met at the emergency room door. The hospital staff, learning about my bloodwork, thought that a dead kid was being delivered into their arms.

I have hereditary spherocytosis. It’s a blood disorder that causes my red blood cells to be shaped like spheres instead of flattened discs. The spleen normally helps to filter bacteria and damaged cells out of the blood stream, but the strange shape of my red blood cells sends the spleen into overdrive. I truly can’t remember the specifics of my bloodwork, but it was bad. Very bad. Luckily, I was out of the hospital in a few days but went back in with a similar event when I was 7 years old. At 8 years old, I finally had my spleen removed. As I had entered elementary school and had begun playing contact sports, my enlarged spleen had become more dangerous, as it could more easily burst (I actually had two spleens, which I believe makes me a medical marvel, but they both had to go).

I am one of an estimated 10 million people in the United States with a compromised immune system. I don’t feel any different than anyone else, and it doesn’t hold me back. I went on to play Division I lacrosse at Duke University, and I’m now married with three young children. But it’s something that I know elevates my risk in certain scenarios, and I’m wary of it. Every day, from the time I had my spleen removed at 8 years old until I graduated from college, I took amoxicillin to help bolster my immune system and fend off infections. I’ve gotten every vaccine known to mankind. To limit my risk, I continue to work out by boxing or running 4-5 days per week, and I try to eat healthy (outside of my childish, guilty pleasure of Chips Ahoy cookies and milk… nearly every night). Understanding my individual risk, I take measures in my daily life to make sure I’m as healthy as possible to help boost my immune system. This is my individual risk, and my individual risk alone; no one, and I repeat, NO ONE is responsible for my health other than me. And on the flip side, others are responsible for their own health. This is how I’ve always lived my life.

Then 2020 hit, and along came COVID-19. At first, the response was unified as we learned more about this infectious, aerosolized virus that no human intervention measures can stop (AIER lists over 30 studies showing the ineffectiveness of lockdowns, for example). As time went on, it seemed that the response was becoming more about politics and “winning” than about the virus. Every psychological trick in the book has been tried, some to great success (“my mask protects you; your mask protects me,” “stay home, save lives,” it’s all for “the common good”). Despite my issues with almost all of the fear messaging over the past year, the one that really made my blood boil was the mass vaccination campaign that broadly weaponized the “immunocompromised” as a reason that everyone, young and old, needs to be vaccinated, with an emergency use vaccine (until very recently, and 2 of the 3 vaccines are still under emergency use authorization), against this terrible disease.

Universities started to require vaccination to return to on-campus learning, and businesses are coercing employees, as well. In one of the more divisive speeches I have ever heard, President Biden used his bully pulpit to shame and ridicule the unvaccinated, erroneously calling them a danger to the vaccinated. Then came the emails from my kids’ schools, one stating that they are still determining whether or not to require the vaccination this school year. Another implied that the only way to return to normalcy is through 100% vaccination of the student body. My children are 10, 9, and 6, so this sent chills down my spine. My answer, put bluntly, was “absolutely not.”

As I said before, I am pro-vaccine. I’m also pro-individual liberty. And, most of all, I’m pro-critical thinking. Why on earth are we coercing and pressuring parents into vaccinating kids and adolescents with an EUA vaccine (the full approval for Pfizer is only for 16+)? Remember when we did everything out of “an abundance of caution”? Does the precautionary principle not apply here? Are these schools feeling political pressure, or are they so far down the fear-narrative rabbit hole that they don’t realize that COVID-19, thankfully, isn’t dangerous to children?

As world-renowned epidemiologist and physician-scientist John Ioannidis said, and Scott Atlas echoed, the risk to children is “almost zero.” Most school-aged kids across Europe have been going to school normally, without masks or distancing, for the past year without issue. In Sweden, at the height of the pandemic hysteria in March 2020, 1.95 million kids younger than 16 attended school without masks or distancing through June. The result? 15 developed severe COVID-19 and none died… out of 1.95 MILLION. This happened almost everywhere in Europe for children; how irrationally fearful have we become in the U.S. that we are not able to think critically about this when it applies to schools and vaccines for young kids?

It’s possible to be pro-vaccine while also wanting to see more long-term results in regards to the usage of COVID-19 vaccines in children. As stated in an opinion piece written by Vinay Prasad, Wesley Pegden, and Stefan Baral: “Unlike for adults, the rarity of severe covid-19 outcomes for children means that trials cannot demonstrate that the balance of the benefits of vaccination against the potential adverse effects are favorable to the children themselves. In short, given the rarity of severe clinical courses and limited clarity of risks, the criteria for emergency use authorization do not appear to be met for children.”

The vaccine appears to be effective in limiting severe cases and hospitalizations, so if you are vaccinated, you should have no concerns. And if you’re a parent, the exceptionally low risk profile of the 0-17 age demographic should put you at ease as well. But at the end of the day, this should be about the choice of the family and the child and their personal pediatricians; any type of pressure or coercion is unacceptable and continues to erode our trust in public health, which is already going to take a generation to repair.

As an immunocompromised individual, I NEVER asked for this, and there are millions like me. It’s not the government’s job to protect my health; it’s the government’s job to protect my freedom, liberties, and rights. How dare we keep children out of school for a year (or more) using people like me as the reason, without our consent? How dare we mask and distance our children and close schools when globally—and domestically—we have data showing it’s completely unnecessary (in fact, mask-optional schools showed lower transmission)? How dare we use children as shields for adults? If it’s not clear, this has never been about students or their health, but it has everything to do with institutions trying to appease the mob and avoid any conflict. That’s no longer acceptable, if it ever was. Kids are not responsible for the irrational fears of adults. Children unequivocally aren’t responsible for my health, and I never would ask them to be.

Adults, we have failed children for over a year. And now, holding kids’ educations ransom until they get an EUA vaccine, when they are at lower risk from COVID-19 than influenza, is the one of the worst things humanity has done, and these measures, without a doubt, disproportionately affect the disadvantaged and marginalized. And don’t get me started on the teachers’ unions.

We can start to repair the damage we’ve done before it’s too late. The school year just started, and already we are seeing disruption and quarantines in the name of “safety.” There are universities, including my alma mater, Duke University, going fully-remote, with mask mandates indoors and out, despite 95%+ vaccination rates on campus. What is the off-ramp? And if we are trying to increase uptake of vaccinations, I can assure you that this is the exact opposite strategy that should be employed.

It is time to reshape the narrative, add context to the COVID-19 risk profile that has been hidden for a year, and start to promote self-responsibility and accountability when it comes to one’s health. And, one more time for those in the back, you are not responsible for my health or my family’s health, and I am not responsible for yours. Let’s start acting like civil adults again. It’s time for humanity to move forward for the sake of our most valuable asset, our children.

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