Oregon’s statewide indoor mask mandate comes to an end at 11:59pm on Friday, and Oregonians with compromised immune systems are rethinking their day-to-day options as a result. Many are anticipating questions from strangers about why they continue to wear masks in public spaces.
We hear from three immunocompromised people about how they are thinking and feeling about the change in mask policy. Jake Tatel is a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor who works from home doing sales and marketing. Martha Decherd is a retired school librarian and kidney transplant recipient. And Jessica Da Silva is a mother of two young children who runs her own baking business and lives with Lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
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Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Today is the last day for Oregon and Washington’s statewide indoor mask mandates, meaning tomorrow people with compromised immune systems will have to rethink the extent to which they feel safe venturing out into public spaces. We’re talking about a lot of people. According to the Atlantic magazine, close to 3% of US adults take immunosuppressive drugs. That’s at least 7 million Americans. Millions more have diseases that compromise their immune systems. We’re going to hear some of their stories today. Here is a voicemail we got from Heather who has chronic kidney disease.
Voicemail: I’m only 28 years old, so I present as a healthy young person. That’s really not the case. Once masks are gone, that kind of equalizer is gone, too. I’ll still be wearing a mask around the office and with other people and in grocery stores. When I see people give me a weird look or even ask, ‘Why are you still wearing a mask? Things are back to normal. You don’t need to do that.’ I feel like I shouldn’t have to disclose my whole health history to them in the workplace to just get them off of my case about wearing a mask. So, I guess what I would like other people to know as we’re pushing people back into this, quote/unquote, “normal” is that it’s not going to be normal for everybody.
Miller: For more on what this next stage of the pandemic is going to be like for some of the Oregonians who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, I’m joined by three people who are all immunocompromised. Jake Tatel is a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor who works in sales and marketing, Martha Decherd is a retired school librarian and a kidney transplant recipient, and Jessica Da Silva is a mother of two young children [who] runs her own baking business and lives with Lupus and other autoimmune diseases. Welcome to all three of you.
Guests: Thanks for having us.
Miller: Jake Tatel first. I’m curious- as I noted, you’re a cancer survivor, first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma 10 years ago. You’re also a bone marrow transplant recipient. How much did being immunocompromised impact your life before the pandemic?
Jake Tatel: Thanks again for allowing me to be here and tell my story a little bit. I’ve been immunocompromised during, obviously, cancer treatment. Chemotherapy [and] radiation create that situation. Prior to COVID, even though it’s in remission, I had to deal with a compromised immune system. That presents in pneumonias and really having to be careful and protect myself. I had to travel prior to COVID a lot for my job and I have worn masks on airplanes ever since post transplant. So I’ve been used to conditions, but certainly they’ve been amplified and magnified significantly since COVID.
Miller: Jessica Da Silva, what about you? As I noted, you have Lupus and other autoimmune diseases. What did being immunocompromised mean for your life before the pandemic?
Jessica Da Silva: I’m on light chemo medications right now, and before. So, anytime anybody gets sick… I have two little kids. My eldest is now six. But every time she would come home from school with a cold, that means I would be sick… people would get sick for two weeks and I’d be sick for a month, a month and a half. So that’s what it’s …
Miller: I think we may have- we’re going to work on your connection because we lost a couple of your words. Going to you, Martha Decherd. You got a kidney transplant, I think it was 14 years ago. Let’s zoom to the present or the last couple of years. What does that transplant, and the medicines that go along with it, mean in terms of your body’s ability to fight COVID if you were to get it?
Martha Decherd: My understanding is that it means that I would be very much at risk, certainly for serious infection if not death. Therefore I have been extremely cautious. I go almost nowhere. And when I do, I wear a mask.
Miller: Let’s dig into that because one of the deep truths of this pandemic is how it’s affected different people so differently. When you say you go almost nowhere, what do you mean in particular? What haven’t you done over the last two years?
Decherd: I have been to a restaurant once, and that was last summer in that little lull before the delta variant hit all of us. I have not seen my mother, who lives in Hawaii, since October of 2019. I haven’t seen my children or grandchildren since December of 2019. I do go for walks in our neighborhood. The only time I’ve been in a grocery store was to go to the pharmacy and get a vaccination. My husband does our grocery shopping, masked and protected. I don’t see my friends in person. When it was warm enough to do things outside, we did – masked and socially distanced. But I’m not able to do my volunteer jobs in person, take classes in person, any of those kinds of things that I was able to do before the pandemic.
Miller: Jessica Da Silva, what about you? One difference is that you have much younger kids right now. Can you give us a sense for the extent to which you have been out in the world and exposed to the world over the last two years?
Da Silva: Surprisingly, I’ve been working this whole time, exposed to the world. For the first year of the pandemic, I had been working full-time as a rural mail carrier out in North Plains and Forest Grove. I was the only one masked up for the longest time. I also have a small baking business that, through the pandemic, we’ve been doing farmers’ markets. I’m constantly out there with people coming towards me or near me. So I have been exposed, but I won’t go to restaurants, I won’t go out anywhere unless it’s to the grocery store or to work or to the farmer’s markets.
Miller: Is it fair to say that that workplace exposure, or work-based exposure, was a necessity? You needed those jobs, and those jobs put you in contact with people even if that wasn’t what you wanted?
Da Silva: Oh yeah. I have had many COVID tests, especially before the mask mandates were initiated or before the federal government put a mask mandate at the Postal Service for people to wear masks at work. [When] I would have to train people and they would be close or anytime any employees got sick or anybody around me got sick, I’m there getting a COVID test just to make sure that I’m not in the hospital or anybody else in my family is in the hospital.
Miller: Jake Tate, can you give us a sense for what you have done and what you haven’t done over the last two years?
Tatel: For me it’s similar to Martha. I stay completely in my home. I rarely go out; when I do, I wear a mask. I don’t go into public places. I’ll go curbside for food pick up and sometimes inside just to pick up food – that I cannot do anymore with the mask mandate going away. My wife as well. You played a call earlier from the elderly lady who preferred to have early shopping. My wife takes advantage of that for me, to protect me, or goes at off-hours grocery shopping – now we’ll have to revert to delivery or curbside. I haven’t been to a restaurant in two years. I have seen my elderly kids once. Last time one of my sons came to town, he had to go to a hotel for 10 days before he could come see me for four days. So, yeah, it’s pretty extreme.
Miller: Martha, what went through your mind – I think it was about a month ago now – when the state announced that the mandate was going away, and then eventually moved up the end of the mandate to now?
Decherd: I was very frustrated by that for many of the reasons that Kimberly Repp mentioned. We’ve seen this pandemic go up and down. While the numbers are going down now, I’m really concerned that, with the end of the mask mandate, they’ll go back up again. As Jake was just saying, I’m not going into grocery stores, even masked, because I can’t count on the person near me, who may or may not be masked, even being vaccinated. It just does not feel safe out there in the general world. Not just for me but for anybody who is vulnerable or young children who can’t be vaccinated yet.
Miller: Jessica, what about you? What went through your mind when you heard the mask mandate was going away?
Da Silva: I’ve been pretty fortunate. At the farmers’ markets, a lot of people are still wearing masks. Any of my employees are wearing masks. But the main concern is my six-year-old, that’s in first grade: They’re taking away the masks at school. I think that was the tipping point because, when she was in preschool, before the pandemic, she would come home with a cold every couple of weeks, a different cold. It’s been nice not having a cold for these last two years. We’ve discussed it with her, and she’s going to wear a mask because her two-year-old sister cannot get vaccinated yet. We’re all vaccinated in our family except for the two-year-old. So the main thing is that I wish that we were keeping the masks in school until the end of the year to see how the numbers go with the lift. I understand we need to go back to real life, but I just want to have those precursors in there. There’s still vulnerable groups including me and the other folks on the panel and the little kids that cannot even get a vaccination. So it’s kind of scary that we might go back to the little kids having high numbers because of school mask mandate lifts.
Miller: We’re talking about this on the last day of the indoor mask mandate for Oregon and Washington. I want to play all of you a voicemail that came in.
Voicemail: Hi, my name is Donna and I live in Portland, Oregon and I am immunocompromised. I am currently a stage 4 cancer patient who is currently in treatment. Even though the mask mandate will be coming off as of this Saturday, I will continue to be wearing my mask, as will my family, in all public spaces so that I can protect myself and my family can protect me as well. I hope that in public when people see me wearing a mask, [they understand] it’s not because of defiance or [that] I’m making some sort of political statement. I’m actually wearing a mask to protect my life. I have a very compromised immune system from chemotherapy and I just hope people keep to themselves, mind their own business and respect what everyone’s own choices are in this matter.
Miller: Martha Decherd, have you encountered anything like what we heard there from Donna or earlier from Heather? She, in that earlier voicemail, was talking about people questioning her use of wearing a mask in the workplace. Have people questioned your decision to wear a mask in public?
Decherd: Generally not, because I haven’t been interacting with the general public. The people I do interact with know my situation and are very supportive. What I have encountered is people questioning why I’m not willing to be out in the world more.
Miller: What’s the context for that – why somebody would question that personal decision?
Decherd: Well, “We’re all vaccinated and we’re all going to get together. And so why aren’t you?”
Miller: These are friends or acquaintances?
Decherd: Acquaintances generally. Yes.
Miller: It seems like a careful parsing there of the level of closeness. You were quick to say acquaintances as opposed to friends because friends would know better, I guess is what you’re saying?
Decherd: Yes, my friends are very respectful of my needs, as I try to be of theirs. They will leave it to me with no judgment if I’m going to go somewhere. We were invited to an outdoors birthday party last summer, where everyone was going to be vaccinated, but I did not go. Everybody who was going to go was very supportive, wished I could be there but understood. It’s been people who are not as close friends who don’t quite always get it.
Miller: Jessica Da Silva, what about you? It seems like, of the three of you, as we talked about because of your job you’ve been forced to be more in public – it seems like often in places where people have been okay with wearing masks. But I’m curious if you’ve encountered the kinds of questions that we’ve heard from these voicemails.
Da Silva: Oh yeah. I didn’t go anywhere for the holidays, but I’ve also had, at farmers’ markets where people will make it super political or will get into your face and say, “I’m not buying things from you because of your mask.” – comments like that. But you just gotta shrug it off and be like, “okay.” I’m going to wear a mask. I’m probably going to have it more often, too, when I go back to the kitchen because one of the kitchens I rent from is very anti mask. Most of the people there will be fine with it, but I’m going to stand my ground and wear my mask and keep my distance like I always have been for the past few years.
Miller: Jake Tatel, I’m curious- with the overwhelming push to, quote, ‘go back to normal’ it does feel like a major societal change – meaning a societal change that would make life easier for people who are immunocompromised – frankly, seems less likely than a scientific breakthrough in terms of a treatment. Do you see some kind of breakthrough on the horizon – a more effective treatment for COVID-19 that actually would change the calculus for you?
Tatel: Well, that’s the hope. In the early days of COVID in my discussions with the medical team and oncologists, it was a hope of reaching critical mass from a vaccination rate. Now, as we’re two years into this and we’ve seen how that’s gone – our lack of progression in respect to vaccination rate – it is more about therapeutics and treatments. There is promise and there’s, from what I’ve been told, a lot that is happening and on the precipice of becoming reality. The question becomes, ‘How effective are those types of therapeutics on folks like ourselves who are extremely compromised?’ For myself, besides being immunocompromised, I have diminished lung capacity from radiation, and certainly we all know that COVID attacks the respiratory system, so those are all unknowns. There’s hope, but until then we really have to be really, really diligent on how we conduct our lives.
Miller: Martha, what do you wish people who don’t have compromised immune systems better understood about your life right now?
Decherd: I would like them to understand that what I’m doing is not because I don’t want to be out there. I do want to be out there, but I don’t feel like it’s safe. Until more people are vaccinated, until people understand that, for instance, the vaccines aren’t just about them but are about everybody, I’m not sure how safe I’m going to feel. I agree with Jake; the upcoming possible treatments give us some hope. But I want people to understand that those of us who are still isolating, still wearing masks, aren’t doing it as a political statement but as a way of keeping ourselves healthy and that our lives are valuable, that we contribute to society, even if we’re immunocompromised. I think that’s a really important thing for people to understand.
Miller: Jessica, we have about 45 seconds left. What do you wish people who aren’t immunocompromised were thinking about right now or knew right now?
Da Silva: I’m just gonna have to mirror everything Martha said, and the callers, that we just want to keep safe. I want to go out. I want to enjoy the things I did in the past. I want to go visit family in other states. I just want to be safe and I want to keep my family as safe as possible. I just don’t want to end up in the hospital. I want to keep things going. I don’t want it to be political. I want it to be about science.
Miller: Jessica, Martha and Jake. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us today. I really appreciate it.
Guests: Awesome. Thank you. Thank you.
Miller: That’s Jessica Da Silva, Martha Decherd and Jake Tatel.