As Cal Poly students returned to campus after winter break amidst the Omicron variant, there were a number of students who were hesitant to do so due to their increased risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus: immunocompromised students.
Individuals who are immunocompromised have a weaker immune system as a result of either a chronic illness or from taking medication that suppresses their immune system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, which is like arthritis in my hip. If I don’t take care of it, my spine will fuse together,” graphic communications senior Mia Lew said. “So, I have to give myself an injection every two weeks…and it suppresses my immune system to help with not being in pain.”
Immunocompromised individuals live with invisible illnesses and because of that, others are not aware of them or may not take their condition seriously, according to nutrition sophomore Reina Knowles. Knowles has been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease similar to inflammatory bowel disease.
“It’s really hard to tell if someone’s immunocompromised unless you’re watching them go to the hospital to get their infusion or watching them pop their prednisone in the morning,” Knowles said. “You’re really not going to know—it’s completely invisible.”
At the beginning of winter quarter, many professors offered their classes in a virtual format, including all of Lew’s professors. However, after two weeks, one of her classes transitioned to in-person with no online alternative.
Worried, Lew emailed her professor asking if it was possible to attend lectures via Zoom.
“[My professor] said I should take it in the fall. She said I should just wait until then, and I’m a fourth year,” Lew said. “I don’t think that because I’m disabled, I should have to postpone my education.”
Lew is only one of the many immunocompromised students on campus who are facing this issue.
“The in-person only class [I have] has been getting progressively scarier, I would say, because there’s no online component. There aren’t slides. There aren’t notes that you can get from the professor, or anything like that,” communication studies junior M.W. Kaplan said. “I don’t really have a choice but to go to class, which freaks me out every time I go.”
Kaplan has a chronic illness that they said is believed to be an autoimmune disease with neurological dysfunction. They organized a support group for students with chronic illnesses and invisible disabilities, and is also the head of the Disability Alliance.
They believe that there should be an online alternative for every class, which would allow students to do their work remotely.
“When it’s left up to the professors, they aren’t going to choose to accommodate disabled students if it’s going to be more work for them usually,” Kaplan said. “Some definitely do, but there aren’t enough that I think it’s a real problem for immunocompromised students.”
Knowles shared the same sentiment about immunocompromised students not being acknowledged and included in Cal Poly’s COVID-19 protocols.
“I think that’s some systemic discrimination that we’re experiencing,” Knowles said. “I think that one of the biggest things that Cal Poly could improve on is acknowledging that we have a decent-sized immunocompromised population.”
The risks immunocompromised students face do not stop inside the classroom.
Lew works at the craft center on campus and was told that employees could still report to work despite being exposed to the virus.
“They told us that we can come in if we’ve been exposed,” Lew said. “We’re allowed to come in and work. It’s up to our discretion.”
With new variants of the coronavirus continuing to emerge, immunocompromised students continue to live in fear of contracting the virus while having to balance their education and jobs on top of that.
“We need to address the elephant in the room, which is that immunocompromised people exist on campus at Cal Poly. We are here. We are invisible. You cannot tell who’s immunocompromised by looking at them,” Knowles said. “But there are a considerable amount of students that are immunocompromised on this campus.”