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Weighing Coronavirus Risks with Chronic Illness

Today, I risked my life for a Whatchamacallit. Or two. Okay, fine, I bought four Whatchamacallit candy bars at Walgreens. Since the coronavirus pandemic took over our lives, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve left the house other than to walk my dog. I wear a mask the minute I step outside, even just to take out the trash. I’ve been an exemplary and obedient and responsible citizen since this whole COVID-19 nightmare started.

But this morning, I went into a store.

Why today of all days? I had a craving, and I wanted what I wanted. A candy bar that probably four other people on the planet ever buy. Only Walgreens has ‘em, believe me, I’ve searched high and low.

“Risking my life” sounds ridiculous but it’s not hyperbole. As a rheumatoid arthritis patient who is taking methotrexate and gets a biologic infusion of Remicade every eight weeks (medications that can affect immune system function) I’m at what epidemiologists call “moderate risk.” I’m no more likely than anyone else to get coronavirus, supposedly, but should I contract it, I might be more at risk for complications. Or not. Doctors are still studying how my disease and medications can be affected by COVID-19, but until more is known, I’m staying firmly planted in the “better safe than sorry” camp.

For that reason, thus far, I have largely avoided going inside stores, and have relied on delivery and the kindness and bravery of healthier people than me to deliver goods. I could not have a Whatchamacallit delivered. (Yes, I looked into it.)

So, did I have a death wish journeying into the depths of a drugstore this bright sunny morn? As the country opens up, prematurely or not, it’s going to be up to me to decide what activities are worth the risk of possibly contracting a deadly disease that has no cure and ambiguous treatment options (and, hell no, I’m not going to take hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure).

I’ve been thinking a lot about various activities I’m willing or not willing to do yet. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Doctor Appointments: Yes

Going to my rheumatologist’s office for my infusions is a no-brainer. Every single article I’ve read says that unless you have COVID-19, you should stay on your medication regimen. I definitely do not want to have an RA flare. I had a disc replaced in my neck in December and recently did a telehealth follow up appointment with my orthopedic surgeon. We are scheduled for another follow up in early June, and this time he wants me to come in and get an X-ray. I have decided to go because I need to make sure all is kosher in my neck.

There are many other appointments I’m still pushing off —  like the dentist for a much-needed teeth cleaning (I’m flossing like a maniac to keep my chompers healthy), the eye doc (I swear my eyes are worse since the pandemic from reading my phone constantly) and the gyno. Other than my RA, if it’s not an emergency, I’m not ready and holding off a little longer.

Haircut/Pedicure: No

Last month I gave myself a haircut that made me look like Kim Jong Un. A month later, I look like I have a family of squirrels on top of my head. I’m totally desperate — my hair has turned gray and bristly from the stress of all this — but in my home state of California, hair and nail salons are not scheduled to open for at least another month. I’ve heard that a few D-list celebrities from shows like The Bachelor are driving to Arizona to get their hair did. I’m not going to do that because A) I trust only my stylist to not make me look like a North Korean dictator and B) it just seems like a bad idea to cross a state line to get highlights? That’s my personal preference but you do’ you. (Get it? Do’ like hairdo!)

The Gym: No

Oh, how I miss the gym. It’s so important for those of us with inflammatory arthritis to keep moving any way we can. But the gym’s a germ factory and a solid “no way, Jose” for now and maybe indefinitely. I used to do HIIT classes at a boutique gym. Even though we wipe stuff down, the bottom line is that it’s a lot of sweaty bodies packed in a little space, all breathing heavily and touching the same circuit equipment — barbells, ropes, mats, kettle bells, TRX, bosu balls, bikes, sandbags, etc.

I just did my first socially distanced, masked walk with my gym buddy Veronica. We got in 3,000 steps, so not a bad start. I’ve started riding my bike (with a mask on) and will consider swimming in the pools in my gated community, which only allow one person at a time at the moment.

Our local trails are overflowing with hikers, so no thank you. I live very close to Joshua Tree National Park and in non-apocalyptic times I used to go up there and hike at least a few times per month. It’s about to open up again but I will only go during the week when it’s less crowded, will hike Split Rock, my favorite secret trail (doh!) and will drive separately from Veronica, or whoever else I can convince to go with me.

The biggest bummer is that I won’t be able to ruin the hike afterward by stuffing my face with fresh guacamole and the most perfect steak sandwich at iconic watering hole Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown. Pappy’s is mostly outside seating (worth the risk) but it’s always overflowing with people and benevolent motorcycle gangs (mmmmmaybe not).

Restaurants: No

As a general rule, I’m not ready to sit in a restaurant and have an hours-long meal near strangers who chew with their mouths open. I just saw an ad for a mask where you press a lever and it opens the mouth section so you can eat. Yeah — no, I think I’ll wait. I’m happy with delivery and takeout in the interim. One of the only places I’ve gone into was my local bagel shop, Townie, but they were so organized and it felt very safe. They had tape marking off sections six feet wide, only allowed three customers inside at once, six feet apart, and had the back door open as the only exit. Plus, bagels. I cannot and will not live without them. And I will not settle for the icky bready grocery store kind. Must be fresh!

Church/Temple/Mosque: No

I’m not religious so this is not an issue for me but anywhere that’s indoors packed with a lot of people singing and holding hands is a no-go.

So I guess I’ll have to skip the karaoke bar too. Speaking of which…

Bars: No

I don’t drink because of my methotrexate. Oh, and because I’m a recovering alcoholic. But for all those barflies reading this, it’s bad enough that there’s a lot of close talking, clinking of sticky bottles and glasses, and “I love you, man” hugs when people get drunk. On top of that, many of us also make shall we say, “bad decisions” when inebriated. (Wink, wink.) Don’t make me link to the article that recently came out about semen and COVID-19. Please.

Movies: No

I stopped going years ago when gunmen started shooting people while they watched Batman. But from what I’ve read, sitting still in a room for two hours with lots of other potentially asymptomatic carriers is just not wise. I miss that buttery popcorn though. You just can’t recreate that at home. Luckily, one theater by me is doing curbside popcorn pickup to go. For real! Yum.

Stores: Maybe

For the first time in months, I ventured to Costco yesterday. And I went there because I saw the viral video of a Costco worker denying entry to a dipshit who refused to wear a mask. Boy, bye. I also decided to go now because I am worried that after there’s more opening up, there will be a second wave of coronavirus that’s even worse. It seems like right now might be the safest time to go, plus I want to be prepared in case we go into major lockdown again. There were a lot of people in Costco, but it felt safe with everyone in masks. I also wore my bright pink onion goggles for more protection, though they kept fogging up so I couldn’t find my favorite Toffee-flavored popcorn (this is a popcorn-loving household). My Costco had full shelves and actually had stacks of CHARMIN TOILET PAPER! Now, I have enough TP for the next four months and that’s like the biggest load off my mind. Pun not intended but that’s funny.

Socializing: Not Really

Meeting up with Veronica for a walk outside already felt risky, so I won’t be hanging out with friends in any other capacity anytime soon. It just defeats the purpose of quarantining for the last few months. My brother and his wife stopped by our back patio briefly to exchange potatoes for puzzles and that was wonderful. I would love nothing more than to have them over for a Memorial Day barbecue, especially because I just bought a giant pack of Kirkland hot dogs at Costco. I mean giant. Who can eat all those hot dogs? Nah, it’s not worth it.

If we all make it out of this alive and well, there will be plenty of time for barbecues and movies and bar fights (maybe that was just me, and part of why I don’t drink anymore). I will continue to make some dumb decisions, like going to the store to satisfy my craving for a Whatchamacallit. But for my health and the health of others — for the frontline workers and truck drivers and store clerks putting their lives on the line — I’m going to try my best to stay at home and follow the rules.

“No risk, no reward” doesn’t really hold up in the time of coronavirus. This is not the time to take chances, especially if you have a chronic illness like RA or underlying conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Let’s be smart. Let’s be careful. Let’s be patient.

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