You don't need "underlying conditions" to suffer from COVID-19

By Cait Bennett December 11, 2020

On Tuesday, December 1, the Institute sent an email retracting approval of remote learning requests for Spring 2020. Part of the email stated that there would be “limited exceptions to those requirements will be granted e.g., where students have underlying medical vulnerabilities or will be unable to travel.” The student response to this has been intensely critical, including a student petition that has garnered over 500 signatures, a scathing joint email from the Grand Marshal Advaith Narayan ’21, President of the Union Anissa Choiniere ’21, President of the Interfraternity Council Chris Vanderloo ’21, and President of the Panhellenic Council Bryn Clarkson ’21, and a passionate and heart-wrenching letter from Executive Board Vice President of Board Operations and New York State EMT Yaseen Mahmoud to Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Travis Apgar.

In discussions of COVID-19, we hear a lot about “pre-existing conditions,” or underlying medical conditions that increase individuals’ risk of severe symptoms and those conditions are often used to justify the extreme caution taken by those individuals: “I can’t go back to work, I have an auto-immune disorder,” “Be careful around Dave, he has diabetes,” and so on. In this case, Institute officials seem to be using pre-existing conditions as a qualifier for caution. Putting aside the bafflingly inane argument that someone should need to justify being cautious during a pandemic, the Institute policy of “limited exceptions” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how COVID-19 works.

COVID-19 can and does have serious effects on patients without pre-existing conditions.

My entire family came down with COVID-19 around the beginning of April. My case was what doctors consider mild. I had mild asthma, but was healthy otherwise. My symptoms included a low-grade fever (peaking at 100.4), chills and body aches, an awful migraine and a mild cough. I lost my sense of taste and smell. After about two weeks, the flu symptoms faded, and I returned to classes. I still had neurological symptoms of COVID-19 (memory and concentration problems, headaches, and fatigue), although at the time, my doctors didn’t consider these to be COVID-19 symptoms. Despite having a mild case, I had COVID-19 for almost two months; that’s a month and a half longer than a standard mild COVID-19 case.

My mom is in her 40s and was healthy before COVID-19. She was mildly asthmatic, but she could bike 11 miles straight, went to the gym regularly, and could probably bench more than I could. Her case started similarly to mine, with a killer migraine and a sore throat. But, within a week, she was gasping for air from walking across the hall to the bathroom. She had a resting heart rate of 100 beats per minute, and her oxygen levels would drop below 90 after walking upstairs. A healthy person would have an oxygen level between 95 and 100.

My mom’s illness lasted for about three weeks, but even after she tested negative, she still struggled with the effects of COVID-19. My mom went from biking 11 miles to walking no more than half a mile on flat ground. She spent months working to improve her lungs after her illness. My long-lasting symptoms were less severe than my mom’s; I struggled with chronic fatigue until very recently, and still struggle with what COVID-19 patients refer to as “brain fog.” My doctor says there’s nothing to do but wait it out. And, although my taste eventually returned, it’s fundamentally different from before and I lost my long-time love of Louisiana Hot Sauce.

COVID-19’s long-lasting effects can be more than physical

My family is not the only one who has been through this. Class of 2022 Senator Zoe Stetson and her family had COVID-19 in March. She still experiences difficulty breathing, and she had no pre-existing conditions. But Zoe’s situation extends beyond that, exemplifying the ways that COVID-19’s long-lasting effects can be more than physical. Her grandmother, who does not speak English, was hospitalized for a non-COVID-19 case. She later passed alone and confused, with no ability to communicate for herself. The Stetson family couldn’t have a traditional Buddhist funeral, depriving them of the closure they need following such a loss. Furthermore, Zoe’s father was furloughed and then retired due to COVID-19, leaving them with no health insurance after this year.

The trauma of having COVID-19—watching your loved ones suffer, fearing for their lives and yours, feeling out of control—can fundamentally change your life. For Zoe, it was seeing her mother immobilized in her bed for weeks. For me, it was my grandmother lying in a hospice bed instructing me on which songs to sing at her funeral. For both of us, and many others in the Rensselaer community, it’s living in constant paranoia: What if I get it again? What if my family gets it again? When will I ever feel safe again?

When it comes to caution, the pandemic itself is all the justification you need

I’m sharing these stories with you because the Institute policy of “limited exceptions” for remote learning requests shows a profound lack of understanding for the multitude of ways in which COVID can impact every single person, regardless of their pre-existing conditions. It contributes to the COVID-19 gaslighting culture that has developed as this pandemic drags on. Comments like “we shouldn’t let COVID stop us from living” or “you don’t need to worry so much, you don’t have asthma or anything” delegitimize valid concerns about COVID-19, and manipulate those who choose to continue following and advocating for the strictest of precautions.

I know folks who still order their groceries for delivery, and I know folks who go to the store with masks and social distancing. I know folks who opt to continue working from home, and I know folks who go into work with masks and social distancing. All of these people are acting within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and it is not my place to judge. The pandemic itself is all the justification they need.

The RPI administrators have made it clear that they take this pandemic seriously, from twice-per-week testing to our rapid de-densification. Loosening restrictions within CDC guidelines following a successful semester is reasonable, and, I would argue, beneficial to our campus community. But, that doesn’t change the fact that some people will not be comfortable with the possible risks of on-campus living and learning, precisely because of the ways that COVID-19 can still affect them. Forcing students to justify their caution is insensitive. Forcing students back to campus despite their concerns is unethical. I hope that the Rensselaer administrators read these stories keenly and deeply consider the complex, and often personal, ramifications of this virus. If they truly understand this situation and prioritize the well-being of the students, then this remote learning policy will be reevaluated.

Special thanks to the Stetson family, and my mom for allowing me to share their stories with you. Your story—our stories as the Rensselaer community—matters. Solidarity is key.