Navigating Holiday Gatherings Amid the Pandemic With Autoimmune Disease

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by Jennifer van Amerom |

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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, many families are concerned about the holidays. I’m trying to approach the season with patience, but as someone with neuromyelitis optica (NMO), I’m also tired, frustrated, and scared. Living with this disease and taking immunosuppressants means I’m at a higher risk of becoming severely ill if I contract the virus.

While the majority of the population is fully vaccinated here in Canada, I worry about the new omicron variant, which is causing a rapid rise in the number of COVID-19 cases. Those of us with NMO or autoimmune disease must decide how to handle the holidays when it comes to gathering with friends or loved ones. It doesn’t feel right to exclude someone who hasn’t been vaccinated, but it’s also not fair to ask immunocompromised patients to choose between missing Christmas celebrations and risking their health.

If your family is facing these tough decisions, I encourage you to approach the conversation with maturity and kindness, and to make sure everyone feels heard and is treated fairly. You may need to find creative solutions, such as conducting a gift exchange outdoors. It might be fun to bundle up in snowsuits, sip hot chocolate, and play in the snow!

However, I understand that making difficult decisions can be stressful, especially during the holidays. And for those of us with chronic illness, stress can trigger or exacerbate symptoms. Between the pandemic and the holidays, our stress levels could even result in a relapse.

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If you and your loved ones are struggling with tough decisions related to COVID-19 this holiday season, following are several things to consider.

Testing

The Canadian government has started to offer rapid antigen-based COVID-19 tests, free of charge, which would enable people to test themselves before and after gathering over the holidays. Some lineups for testing kits wrap around city blocks, which seems to indicate that people want to stay safe and are taking precautions.

Yet, testing can also be a sensitive topic. Some people find it unnecessary if they are fully vaccinated. Others may believe it’s not required if they’ve followed all safety protocols and aren’t showing any symptoms. While precautions can certainly limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it’s best to test before traveling or visiting with others, as there is always the possibility of having the virus but being asymptomatic. The antigen test is noninvasive and can be done at home. Testing may offer friends or loved ones peace of mind, especially if they are immunocompromised.

When in doubt, some level of protection is generally better than none. While the antigen test is not as accurate as the PCR test, and can produce false negatives, it will still catch many cases. Having the vaccine does not eliminate the risk of infection entirely, but it can minimize the severity of symptoms, should one contract the virus.

Efficacy

I have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and am awaiting my booster shot. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that people taking immunosuppressants may not be fully protected if they are vaccinated.

When we receive the vaccine, our bodies are supposed to create antibodies against the virus, but immunosuppressants weaken our entire immune system. It makes sense that our bodies can’t develop immunity as effectively as healthy people.

For this reason, people who are immunocompromised may take extra precautions or be especially hesitant to attend gatherings.

The challenges of autoimmune disease

My life has long been restricted by NMO, but COVID-19 has restricted it even further. Following is what I wish others understood about living with an autoimmune disease amid the pandemic.

Being physically vulnerable isn’t easy. Living with an autoimmune disease means I’ve always had to be careful, as even the common cold can result in a visit to the emergency room. It is also challenging to be emotionally vulnerable as I share my fears and concerns about living with NMO.

Many of those with autoimmune disease must set boundaries — not to exclude anyone, but to keep us safe. We may need to set boundaries this holiday season, simply to avoid the possibility of contracting harmful viruses.

Those of us with NMO must take precautions to protect our health, and many of us turn to the recommendations provided by governments and health agencies. As we all continue to learn more about this virus, it’s important to maintain an open and respectful dialogue with one another.

We’re all suffering from fatigue. The pandemic has dragged on longer than many of us expected, and now, with the omicron variant, it feels like we’re going through yet another round of the COVID-19 chronicles. We must be kind and patient with one another.

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Note: Neuromyelitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Neuromyelitis News, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD).

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