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Whenever she needs insulin to treat her Type 1 diabetes, Michaéla Finneran sanitizes the injection site with alcohol wipes to reduce the risk of infection. But two weeks ago, her local CVS ran out of wipes. The next three stores she visited didn’t have any either.
At 25, Finneran’s a lot younger than the age group widely considered to face the most risk from the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike her millennial and Gen Z peers who flocked to Florida’s beaches to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this week, she has no illusions about how dangerous the disease could be for her.
“It’s very stressful,” said Finneran. “For a lot of people, the seriousness won’t hit them until something bad happens.”
She’s far from alone. The Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization believe that individuals with serious chronic medical conditions — such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes — face an elevated risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. Even if they’re young.
In interviews, young people with preexisting health conditions and compromised immune systems told VICE News that they stopped leaving their homes entirely days ago. Many of their loved ones have done the same, to help protect them from the novel coronavirus. They’re scared for their lives, and for their children. And they’re fed up with young people who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously.
They’re the mirror image of spring break partiers who flooded Miami this week and brazenly declared themselves unafraid of catching or spreading COVID-19 — a disease that’s already killed 157 people in the United States and sickened more than 11,200. The CDC has urged Americans to avoid gatherings with more than 10 people, while public officials across the country have raced to close bars and restaurants in a desperate attempt to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.
“If I get corona, I get corona,” Brady Sluder, an aspiring 21-year-old Soundcloud rapper from Ohio on spring break in Miami this week, told Reuters. “I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”
Those with preexisting conditions, like Finneran, have no such luxury. In the face of frantic hoarding of basic health staples in Washington D.C., where she lives, Finneran had to travel to her doctor’s office in neighboring Maryland to find the antiseptic wipes she needed to take her insulin shots.
She started carrying hand sanitizer two months ago, when the first headlines about a new coronavirus in China began appearing. On Saturday, as the scope of the pandemic in the United States broadened, Finneran hopped on a one-way flight from Washington, D.C. to her parents’ place in Vermont.
Since then, she’s not only barely left the house, she’s mostly confined herself to two rooms; even her parents are staying a safe distance away from her. At her darkest moments, she’s tried to reassure herself that if she does catch COVID-19 and needs help managing diabetes-related complications, she might be a prime candidate for emergency treatment.
“At least if that were to happen to me, it would be so high-risk that I would go to the front of the line at the hospital,” Finneran said. “Which is a pretty bleak thought to comfort yourself with.”
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Sarah Elliott, 37, has started asking people on social media to stay home, using hashtags like #StaytheFHome to remind them that it’s not just elderly people who are at risk of having their bodies devastated by COVID-19.
“A lot of people, at first, were being really insensitive and they weren’t realizing it,” said Elliott, who lives in Sacramento, California. “And they were saying, ‘Oh hey you guys, don’t worry, our kids are safe, and we’re all safe because we’re not old.’ And I was like, ‘Well, there’s more to it than that.’”
Elliot has multiple sclerosis and asthma, but that’s not the greatest risk: To treat the MS, Elliott takes a drug that suppresses her immune system, making her more susceptible to respiratory infections like COVID-19. She’s stopped leaving the house entirely, save for trips to places like the grocery store — where she wears a mask — quit her job as a server (at a restaurant that’s since shut down), and took her daughter out of school (which has also now shut down).
She recently shared her story on Twitter under the hashtag #HighRiskCovid19, as did Tripp Travisan, a 20-year-old with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that leads to lung infections and increasingly limits people’s ability to breathe.
“That for me was really weird, because I never, ever, ever, ever talk directly about cystic fibrosis. I don’t even like saying it that much,” Travisan said. “But I tweeted that because my demographic is on Twitter, a lot of kids that I know that are in college and stuff like that, are on Twitter. And I heard a lot about kids who are still trying to go out and party for St. Patrick’s Day.”
Normally, Travisan works delivering auto parts in the metro Detroit area, but he hasn’t left the house since Thursday. He disinfects the common areas once a day, including the microwave and refrigerator, and door handles. His mom and brothers have also barely left the house. (Neither of Travisan’s brothers have many places to go, anyway: One had his college get shut down, while the restaurant where the other works is temporarily closed.)
“The only way I see myself getting it is if one of them, or my mom, brings it home,” Travisan said. “For the most part, I’m kind of just trying to do my own thing. If I think about it too much, I’ll just be overloaded and I’ll freak out.”
On Tuesday, Caroline Fenyo posted a video to TikTok, where, to the tune of a Lizzo song, she revealed that she’s immunocompromised and urged people to practice social distancing. A George Washington University student who recently returned home to the Bay Area, Fenyo had hit her breaking point after watching a video of people frolicking in Miami Beach for their spring break.
“This is not just like an individual action thing, where you still want to have a spring break,” said Fenyo, who’s 20 years old and has an autoimmune disorder. In order to treat it, she takes a drug that suppresses her immune system. “I think a lot of younger people are making it very much just about them and not wanting their experiences to be ruined, when that’s just not the outlook we should be taking right now.”
Finneran understands that not everybody can self-isolate like her, that people still need to occasionally pick up food from the grocery store. But when she goes on Instagram and sees others out and about, as if there isn’t a global pandemic going on, she can’t help but get frustrated.
“Chances are,” she said, “you’re never really going to know that you were the one person who gave coronavirus to someone else who eventually got very sick.”
Cover: A shopper wearing a mask is pictured near a sign advising out-of-stock sanitizer, facial masks and rubbing alcohol at a store following warnings about COVID-19 in Kirkland, Washington on March 5, 2020. (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)