Two years into the pandemic Jackie Hansen still left home only for doctor visits, her immune system so wrecked by cancer and lupus that COVID-19 vaccinations couldn't take hold.
Then Hansen got a reprieve — scarce doses of the first drug that promises six months of protection for people with no other way to fend off the virus.
"This is a shot of life," Hansen said after getting injections of Evusheld at a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center clinic. She can't wait to "hug my grandkids without fear."
Up to 7 million immune-compromised Americans have been left behind in the nation's wobbly efforts to get back to normal. A weak immune system simply can't rev up to fight the virus after vaccination like a healthy one does. Not only do these fragile patients remain at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19, they can harbor lengthy infections that can help spark still more variants.
With more of the country now abandoning masks and other precautions as the omicron wave ebbs, how to keep this forgotten group protected is taking on new urgency.
This is "quickly transitioning into an epidemic of the vulnerable," said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. While healthy vaccinated people may return to pre-pandemic activities with little worry about severe consequences, "the immunocompromised -- despite vaccination, despite taking all precautions -- cannot, and remain at risk."
"We're going to have to navigate this as a society and it's going to be a really difficult societal conversation," he added.
Indeed, amid all the talk about omicron being less severe for many people, the most contagious variant so far laid bare how the immune-compromised need more defenses.
"The pandemic has not spared them yet," said Dr. Ghady Haidar, an infectious disease specialist at UPMC, where people hospitalized with serious COVID-19 over the past month have been a mix of the immune-compromised and the unvaccinated.
Hansen, a retired nurse, has had to have tough conversations about why she can't be around anyone who's not vaccinated.
"Other people's behaviors really affect and jeopardize the lives of people like myself," said Hansen, who nearly died from the flu shortly before the pandemic began.
"We're all tired of wearing a mask, everybody just wants to put it behind us," Hansen said. But while for most people "'it's an annoyance to put a mask on to go to the grocery store," she's had to fight to get her cancer care scheduled during COVID-19 surges.