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Even after vaccination, immunocompromised people still facing the threat of COVID-19

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Posted at 11:58 AM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-10 14:58:58-04

KENT COUNTY, Mich — For more than a year, Meegan Zickus has been living with the knowledge that she is at a greater risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19.

The Grand Valley State University professor is part of roughly 3% of the adult U.S. population that is immunocompromised.

"My kids can't go anywhere, my husband can't, so we're all kind of stuck in the house," Zickus said. "I have a really rare condition, there's less than probably 300 to 500 of us worldwide. It's called necrotizing autoimmune myopathy and it's an autoimmune condition."

Zickus said she developed the condition after having her third child.

"At some point my body just decided to attack on my muscles," she said. "There's no cure. They usually treat it by shutting the immune system down, either the entire immune system or just parts of it, and then that just suppresses all of the immune response that your body makes to affect the killing off of your muscles."

The condition means that Zickus and her family have to continue to be vigilant, despite receiving both doses of the vaccine.

"I already feel like I missed out on a decade of my life with this illness and now I'm missing out because of a pandemic," she said. "Because people won't do the right thing by wearing the mask, staying home, getting the vaccine and that kind of feels to me like I'm being trapped in a situation that I have no control over."

Mimi Emig shares the same struggle. The retired infectious disease doctor explained that vaccines may not be as effective for those who are immunocompromised.

"Yes, they've been vaccinated, but they still have to be extraordinarily careful after receiving the vaccine because their immune system might not produce the same level of protection that other people do," Emig said.

Emig added there are a variety of reasons why someone may be considered immunocompromised: either by medications they're taking (i.e. immune suppressants or high-dose steroids), having an autoimmune condition, cancer or undergoing chemotherapy, or being born with, or developing a condition where the immune system is weaker.

For the immunocompromised, "community immunity" is critical.

"By giving the vaccine to nearly everybody in the community, you make it that those whose immune systems are weaker get protected, because there's not enough people who remain susceptible for the virus to be able to spread from person to person," Emig said. "Eventually it will help protect people like me, or someone who is getting cancer chemotherapy etc., but even more importantly, we're going to bring down the total number of cases, we're going to bring down the load on the hospitals."

Both Zickus and Emig will continue to sacrifice to stay safe in the meantime, with the hope more people will choose to become vaccinated to protect themselves and others.

"I don't know that people always realize, whose lives they're really protecting by getting the vaccine and wearing the mask, and you know it's definitely people that are in your own community," Zickus said. "I just think if more people realized, how many of us are out there, that are literally stuck at home, [it might] make a difference in their approach to some things."

This story was originally published by Janice Allen on Scripps station WXMI in Grand Rapids, Michigan.