Around the country, mask mandates have expired. But millions of Americans won't be ditching them.
Randy Wilgus, who suffers from pulmonary fibrosis, is one of those people.
Three years ago, he received a transplanted lung from a donor who lost their life.
He is one of the nearly 3% of American adults who are categorized as immunocompromised.
“I’ve actually had somebody mention in the past here recently say, ‘You don’t have to wear a mask now.’ and I told him, ‘Yes, I do. I’m immunocompromised,’ and went on my way,” Wilgus said.
Dr. Ambalavanan Arunachalam is Wilgus’ pulmonologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. He says a lot of people don’t realize there’s such a huge population that’s vulnerable.
Last July, months after most Americans had received a COVID vaccine, a study referenced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found immunocompromised patients made up 44% of hospitalized breakthrough cases. A study in Israel found similar results.
“We think COVID is gone. A more accurate statement is that COVID is slightly better controlled,” Dr. Arunachalam.
“There are a lot of people who are still prone to this infection, who are very vulnerable to this infection and can have fatal outcomes after having this infection," he added.
Everything so many have feared – sustaining a job, going out in public spaces, taking care of their families – remains top of mind for those at risk. So does the drain of emotions.
Wigus says he is suffering from social anxiety.
“I just don’t like to be around a lot of people. I’m very cautious. I’m very well aware of my surroundings, much more than I was prior,” he said.
“My brother passed away with this disease four years prior, and I was devastated over that,” he added.
There’s not much new Wilgus can do. Even now, immunocompromised people are advised to wear a mask, stay six feet apart from those they don’t live with and avoid crowds and poorly ventilated areas.
“They want it to change like how it was before 2020. But the reality is it’s not changed a whole lot, unfortunately," Dr. Arunachalam said.
The hope is that new treatments will make COVID less threatening, including for the immunocompromised – and that many institutions of society will retain the flexibility that became common in the pandemic’s early months.
That will require waiting.
Wilgus works on the golf course, where wide-open space is a virtue.
On the anniversary of his lung transplant, he will write a letter to the family members of the person whose lung he received. He will recognize in them what he hopes others recognize in him: people experiencing life so differently, people who deserve empathy and compassion.
“I would think they would be proud of me knowing what I do and what I know. I think they’d be proud of me. That’s what I would want,” he said.