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Connecticut's Reopening Presents New Challenges For Residents With Underlying Medical Conditions

staying at home
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Sarah Keitt, at her home in Fairfield, Conn., lives with multiple sclerosis and is on immunosuppressant medication, putting her among people with underlying medical conditions who are more at risk of falling severely ill with COVID-19.

Even before the stay-at-home orders were officially issued in late March, Sarah Keitt had begun a two-week period of quarantine in her Fairfield home, isolated from her husband and two children. 

“It was lonely, it was painful to have basically no contact other than yelling up and down the stairs to people,” she said. 

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Keitt did it to make sure that nobody had brought the coronavirus into their home, because if they had, she might be at a higher risk of serious COVID-19 illness due to her multiple sclerosis, other chronic diseases, medications she takes and scarring on her lungs from previous blood clots.

And with the state resuming some business and community activities, she may have to do that again.

“That’s what it might have to come to for families like mine where one person is compromised, but everybody else has to get back to, you know, life as normal or as normal as it’s going to get,” she said.

Gov. Ned Lamont and the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group have come up with specific ways in which restaurants, offices, retail stores and other business sectors can resume beginning May 20, after more than two months of strict stay-at-home orders.

The goal is to restart the local economy and give people the opportunity to work without inciting a second wave of disease outbreak. But this phase of the pandemic brings up old and new concerns for those with underlying medication conditions, especially people who may choose to return to work at the risk of their health.

Keitt said it’s an uneasy situation for her family. Her husband lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic, and they’ll soon have to move off private health insurance and onto Medicaid. So the prospect of job opportunities after the reopening is appealing, Keitt said, but she’s wary.

“My husband and I have talked about this -- if he finds a job and it requires him going somewhere in person, will he take it?” she asked. “And if he does, what are the precautions we’re going to take, and how are we going to set up a decontamination space for him so he doesn’t bring it home to me?” 

Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Sarah Keitt and her husband, Geordie Keitt, walk down the road where they live in Fairfield, Conn. As the state plans to start its first phase of reopening, they're worried about how that will impact their family and others who have preexisting conditions and are at risk of falling severely ill from COVID-19. "I'm just trying to find a place in what our new reality is, because our new reality is not made for people like me," Sarah Keitt said.

State officials continue to urge older residents and people with underlying health conditions to stay at home -- the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that these groups may suffer from severe COVID-19 illness or complications if infected, particularly those with lung disease or asthma, serious heart conditions, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, liver disease and the immunocompromised.

Researchers don’t yet know the exact degree of heightened risk for severe COVID-19 illness or complications for people with preexisting conditions, but an early national study in March showed that about 90% of hospitalized patients had at least one or more underlying conditions.

For those who do have to go back to work or into communities, Dr. Albert Ko, co-chair of the Reopen Connecticut committee, said masks, protective equipment and education about social distancing and hygiene will go a long way in keeping everyone safe.

“Those are all the mechanisms that are not only going to keep our population, but keep those people with underlying [medical] conditions, those people who are vulnerable for the severe complications of COVID, protected,” he said.

But Doug Schwan said it’s not that simple. He lives with Type 1 diabetes, a chronic illness that requires insulin and other treatment. If he ever struggles to manage the disease, his immune system could be impaired.

“Being diabetic, the first thing I was really taught by my doctor was you can be completely independent,” he said, “but you have to think ahead about things that most people will never have to.”

So early on, Schwan bought masks with filters and other supplies. He prepared for the possibility that his employer -- a nonprofit in New Haven -- would move its employees to telecommuting, but with a position that involves frequent in-person contact, Schwan said that wasn’t an option for him.

He had to stop working and recently began collecting unemployment.

“I’m not sure if my job is going to be there when all of this ends,” he said.

While the upcoming state plans make it possible for others to return to those types of positions, Schwan questions if people who need to protect themselves from the virus by staying at home will be left behind to figure out solutions to gaps in income and benefits.

“So then is the government going to continue my unemployment insurance? Are they going to pay for my insulin, are they going to pay for my insulin pump supplies?” Schwan said.

Some public health experts have suggested that special considerations be given to people with underlying health conditions, things like providing them with N95 masks, continuing remote work or making adjustments to minor job functions.

Lisa Levy, staff attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid, said these might be viewed as reasonable accommodations, which are typically granted under fair employment and disability laws that protect against discrimination.

“If their disability is placing them at a higher risk due to the COVID, then I think, arguably, that person would have a viable claim to a reasonable accommodation in the workplace, depending on the specific circumstances,” she said.

The nonprofit has been fielding calls from people, especially low-wage workers in essential jobs, on issues including employment security and safety during the pandemic, Levy said.

“And many of the people we’re talking to are people who have underlying conditions such as diabetes or asthma, [and] they are finding that they’re scared to go in, and their jobs are often front-line, direct-contact types of jobs,” she said. “Under the new laws that have come into being since the pandemic, it is much easier, fortunately, for individuals to get unemployment compensation if they cannot go to work due to a COVID-19-related reason.”

As the state reopens and job opportunities become available, Levy said people should also know what their rights are concerning information they’re asked to divulge on job applications or during interviews.

“People do have a right to be concerned, but people should be really aware that in the hiring process, no questions about COVID-19 and its relationship to you should come up,” she said. “Nothing like that should come up.”

Keitt said there are still a lot of unknowns about how to go forward. But as people resume activities, she hopes they remember that the pandemic continues to present scary challenges for families like hers.

“I don’t have the answers. All I can say is, I don’t want to die,” Keitt said. “That’s the only answer I have. So, I’m going to be staying home for a long time.”

The Greater Hartford Legal Aid’s call-in line 860-541-5070 offers free advice to low-income residents in Hartford and Greater Hartford on employment, housing, immigration, divorce and custody, special education and other public benefits during the pandemic.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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