Medically vulnerable New Mexicans react to removal of COVID protections

Immunocompromised people and their loved ones feel anger, sadness

By: - February 28, 2022 5:00 am

An instructor assists a student during a classroom discussion on Aug. 23, 2021 in Houston. (Photo by Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

Abigail Thompson was ringing up a customer at her retail job in Albuquerque on Feb. 17 when a coworker walked up to her and asked, “Did you hear?”

“Hear what?” she responded. They told her New Mexico’s indoor mask mandate was gone.

Thompson was shocked. She nearly had a panic attack. She couldn’t talk for a while, overwhelmed by what she was hearing. She went to the restroom to try to be alone and compose herself.

Thompson was diagnosed at 19 with inflammatory bowel disease, which makes her immunocompromised. She is also on Humira, an immunosuppressant medication which further increases her risk of severe COVID.

Now 23, she is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Mexico. She moved here from Alabama. Her family is originally from Virginia.

When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that she was lifting the state’s indoor mask mandate, there was an audible sigh of relief in the room. When she told everyone in the room they could take off their masks, there was applause.

By contrast, Thompson and two other families expressed anger, fear, and resignation about the prospects of life without it in interviews with Source New Mexico.

“As an immunocompromised person, it’s just one thing after another, after another,” Thompson said. “Your life is already difficult; here’s a few more things.”

Thompson worked the rest of her shift that afternoon on auto-pilot, trying not to think about the mandate being gone, just focusing on helping customers. That night, she FaceTimed for hours with her parents, who were also surprised.

The New Mexico Department of Health sent out text messages to New Mexicans who indicated on their vaccine registrations that they are immunocompromised, informing them that they may be eligible for a fourth shot.(Courtesy of Abigail Thompson)

“It’s been pretty scary being immunosuppressed during COVID times,” Thompson said.

Individual responsibility and choice has become the go-to framework cited by state governments as they have lifted their mask mandates. Thompson disagrees. She said a better framework is one centered on community.

“Our culture is big on individualism and just you, yourself as an individual,” Thompson said. That’s become more apparent as the country has struggled to deal with the pandemic, she said.

A solution, she said, would be for New Mexico leaders to just talk with vulnerable communities, including communities of color and the immunocompromised. She doesn’t think they were consulted in the decision to lift the mandate.

“Profit is being put over people,” Thompson said. “I think that’s become more apparent as mask mandates have been lifting.”

Jila Pakroo, a 15-year-old student at the Early College Academy in Albuquerque, was in her room at home when she heard the news. She was also shocked.

“It seemed just kind of like, random and out of the blue to me,” Pakroo said.

Since she was six years old, Pakroo has struggled with an auto-immune disorder that her mother Peri says is difficult to diagnose. Jila also takes immune suppressant medication. She had an adverse reaction to the vaccine, and her doctors recommended against getting the booster.

“I’ve just had to be extra, extra careful, which means missing out on a lot of like, going out to parties, and like kind of being a normal high schooler in a lot of ways, which isn’t always the best feeling and kind of leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth sometimes,” she said. “I think it’s giving me a good perspective on how to adjust to hard things.”

She thinks the mask mandate should have stayed in place a little longer, especially at her school, where students sit right next to each other.

Peri Pakroo kept both of her children home from school the day after the mandate was lifted, and they all discussed it with their doctors over the weekend, who told them it was their decision to return or not.

She has at times felt proud about the state’s response to the pandemic, but now believes the mask mandate being lifted was motivated by politics.

“Masks make a big difference, the science shows that; I don’t care what anyone says,” she said. “I know how to read science reports and read studies.”

New CDC guidance relaxes indoor public masking in a majority of U.S. counties

Child vaccination rates low

Stacy Gherardi, of Albuquerque, is a mother of a 4-year-old son with severe chronic auto-immune neutropenia, which means he has low levels of one kind of white blood cell called neutrophils. Children like him have the ability to make those cells, but their bodies attack them, she said.

She is an assistant professor in social work at New Mexico State University, with a focus on school-based mental health.

Children with the condition, Gherardi said, need to live in isolation because day-to-day bacteria, in the home or from pets, for example, can cause life-threatening infections if left untreated.

Any signs of a fever require a visit to the emergency room, according to the family’s doctors. There’s not a lot of information about how children like him will respond to COVID, she said.

Her son is a rambunctious, outgoing, curious force of nature, Gherardi said. He loves to play with his older brother at the park, watch YouTube videos, and take naps.

But Gherardi’s family must be strategic and very cautious about what activities they do because of her son’s medical vulnerability.

Like all children under 5, Gherardi’s son is not yet eligible for vaccination from COVID-19.

Child vaccination rates in the U.S. are low. Less than 60% of students 12-17 years old are fully vaccinated, and only one out of every four of students 5-11 years old are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Racial and ethnic minority students are less likely to have had access to vaccines, and the choice to get the jab is often not up to the students.

Gherardi’s children also cannot properly wear high-quality masks. They use a cloth mask with a filter in the lining, but the best protection comes from wearing an N95, which does not fit on children’s faces.

When Gherardi learned about the mask mandate going away from a friend’s text message, she was surprised, sad and upset. Now she feels resigned to it.

“I’m sure it was planned, but it wasn’t communicated ahead of time, or openly tied to metrics,” Gherardi said. “So if things go back up, what happens? Do we just have to stay home?”

Gherardi wasn’t expecting the mandate to last forever, but said it should have been tied to specific, predictable metrics, and not just lifted without warning or lifted at a certain date.

“If we really wanna say we’re ‘following the science,’ and these aren’t political decisions, then we should lay out the metrics for when we do what,” Gherardi said. That could include tying masking mandates to rates of cases.

The pandemic has impacted different people in vastly different ways, Gherardi said, but there could have been more discussion about what people can do based on their situation. Online learning wasn’t great for a lot of people, but there wasn’t the capacity to continue school as usual, she said.

“What if they had asked people who are able to do online learning?” she asked. “But we politically can’t ask those questions, I think. Framing it as a social responsibility thing could be impactful, I think, if we were in a different political environment. Unfortunately, I don’t know if that would ever be feasible.”


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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.