COVID-19 strikes fear in Michigan's medically vulnerable

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
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Every morning starts for Aimee Immel with a cup of coffee and a gaze outside her apartment window into a world that has become a dangerous place.

Aimee Immel, 47, of Fowlerville, in her kitchen.

For Immel, 47, of Fowlerville, life is now a lonely and cautious existence. She was born with a congenital heart defect among other medical conditions, and the coronavirus puts her at a higher risk for severe complications, including death.

So a routine jaunt to the grocery store is not advised. Her adult sons, who were initially sent away for a week in case they were exposed, shop for her. Visits to the various doctor offices for her blood disorder and gastroparesis have been mostly scrapped. She only walks her Staffordshire-White Swiss Shepherd mix.

The specter of death has caused those like Immel with autoimmune diseases or the elderly with pre-existing conditions to retreat from a normal life at the behest of doctors and loved ones. And it's left them believing their public interactions — until a coronavirus vaccine is developed — will be changed.

"And I ask myself, am I ever going to be able to leave my house again?" said Immel, who is a Title I teacher in the Howell school system. "I just don't know. Can I even crack my windows? If it's airborne, can I get fresh air? It's just terrifying."

The coronavirus has struck fear in medically vulnerable people as the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Michigan has surpassed 20,000 and the death toll has hit 959. As the number of countrywide cases surged to 430,000 cases and 14,600 deaths, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told Fox News Wednesday that "it’s going to be a bad week for deaths."

In 2017, an estimated 53% of Michigan's nearly 10 million residents suffered from one or more underlying health conditions that puts them at greater risk for severe disease during the pandemic, according to the state health department. Nearly a third of the state's residents are obese, while 16% suffer from asthma, according to 2015-17 data compiled by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

A fearful and vulnerable Richard Welch, 71, of Detroit stands on his balcony patio avoiding contact because he is afraid of contracting the coronavirus.

About a tenth of Michiganians have some sort of cardiovascular disease, 11% have diabetes and 12% have cancer, according to the state health department. Others have other ailments that leave them vulnerable.

This is the reality for Jennifer Hood, 43, of Traverse City, who has Crohn's disease and only leaves her home for a lonesome jog. And Lori Schubring, 45, of Warren who has a progressive form of multiple sclerosis and was warned by her doctors to limit interactions. And Richard Welch, 71, of Detroit who has significant, generational heart issues.

Welch said he knows 10 people — eight from Detroit and two from his childhood days growing up in Grand Rapids — who have died as a result of COVID-19. With a pacemaker and a defibrillator, he said, any virus, especially this one, "I'm concerned about it."

"My cardiologist is just like a brother to me. If I sneeze, he calls me. He woke me the other morning on the way to surgery. ... He said, 'You cannot go out the house, Rick, for nothing,'" Welch recalled. "It's a death sentence to you in your condition. That showed me how serious it was."

The spread of the coronavirus has prompted many states, including Michigan, to issue stay-at-home orders. And medical experts and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have predicted this would be the state's and the nation's worst week with the virus.

Lori Schubring, 45, walks her dog, Jack, near her home in Warren, Mich. on Apr. 2, 2020. Lori Schubring has progressive multiple sclerosis and has been staying very close to home.

New lonely reality

COVID-19 scares those with certain medical conditions because of how it aggressively spreads and paralyzes the lungs compared with other viruses.

As a result, the new norm is relatives dropping off groceries and food at the front door; finding or creating masks to wear if they must go out in public, and keeping away relatives and friends who could infect them.

Responding to inquiries about how she is "is not as casual and easy as it once was," said Hood, a small business owner with Crohn's.

She has had Crohn's for at least 15 years and had part of her colon removed, requiring her to take medication that suppresses the immune system and leaves her more susceptible to the flu, pneumonia and other respiratory issues. 

"Honestly, it hasn't affected my life too much," she said.

Jennifer Hood, 43, of Traverse City, has Crohn's disease and is quarantined at her home.

When the coronavirus hit the United States, Hood said her family expressed concern about a cruise she was supposed to be on in late March. Her doctor advised against going on the cruise, too. When businesses, sports leagues and other institutions began shutting down, she relented.

The rapid increase in COVID-19 cases and the strain they put on hospitals "made it real," Hood said. "And that made it real scary."

Other than an occasional jog and walk, she has been in her home with her 12-year-old son since March 13, looking to God for comfort and strength.

"The last five or six days have been really hard," Hood said. "... You don't see an end in sight anymore. I feel nice and safe inside my house. But I wrestle with, someday I'm going to have to step outside these doors when this is all over."

'Terrified' of treatment

Multiple sclerosis already has weakened the immune system of Schubring, the Warren resident who also has fibromyalgia — known as chronic fatigue syndrome — and is on cell-depleting medication. The spread of the coronavirus already has her "kind of terrified to even having to go" to her next seven-hour medicine infusion at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, she said. 

But doctors say the treatment is necessary to keep her MS from spiraling out of control, said Schubring, who was diagnosed with the condition in 2015. She doesn't have a mask and worries about touching money or going to a drive-thru restaurant for food. She said she will only see her son out for groceries and other supplies and is exploring grocery delivery options.

Lori Schubring, 45, walks her dog, Jack, near her home in Warren on April 2, 2020. Schubring has progressive multiple sclerosis and has been staying very close to home.

Schubring said she now only walks her dog around the neighborhood block. She said she doesn't plan to go anywhere when stay-home directives are lifted

"(President Donald) Trump is really scaring me because he wants us to get off lockdown and people to get back to work," Schubring said. "This is scary because this is something we've never experienced. We've got perfectly healthy people dying from this."

Gary and Carol Allum of Clinton Township are not among the healthy. Gary, 64, had a liver transplant in 2005 and is immune-compromised. Carol, 64, who has an aortic valve problem, wipes down her credit cards and sprays cash with disinfectant.

They now cannot see relatives, especially their grandchildren. Groceries or other essentials are dropped off at their porch. Their more than 80-year-old parents are locked up tight, too.

"I'm pretty terrified because I can't go into public. I'm worried about even reading the mail," Gary Allum said. "It prevents us from shopping. It prevents us from talking to our neighbors. It has kept us away from our family, and that's been the worst."

Carol said she is not only worried about her husband but how her own body will react if she contracts the virus.

"I can't do a lot that I used to do because I get short of breath and it weakens me. I can just get tired walking up and down steps," she said. "And that has to do with your lungs and that's what this virus attacks."

The Allums said they constantly take precautions.

"So now I'm washing my hands to the point where my hands are chapped. It's very scary right now. We're pretty helpless about the situation," Gary said. "At first, this was supposed to be a bad flu. We've had that before. But this time, it's not the flu, it's death. And that does really wake you up."

'Never going to be same'

Welch, vice president of Silver Fox Furs store in Detroit, said he didn't need a wake-up call. The virus is scary enough.

"You can't taste it. You can't feel it. You can't smell it. But it's there. It's doesn't care who you are," he said. "What it has done is changed everybody's life. Your life is never going to be the same anymore."

A fearful and vulnerable Richard Welch, 71, of Detroit stands behind his front door avoiding contact because he is afraid of contracting the coronavirus.

Welch said he has accepted the "new normal" and that people with autoimmune diseases or potentially fatal conditions "better wake up and face reality. If you can't find things around your house that keep you busy, you'd better invent some."

Immel is living more on the edge. When she needs fresh air, she steps out with her dog Rosie.

"I have a really hard time sitting still," Immel said.

After a week away, her youngest son returned last week to keep an eye on Immel. It was a gamble: If he came back, he put her at risk of contracting the virus. But the son's absence was risky, too, because she would have no one to turn to if her blood sugar crashed or heart issues flared.

"With my medical conditions, if I'm here by myself and something happens, there's nobody here to help me," Immel said.

Aimee Immel, 47, of Fowlerville, with her dog. She was born with a congenital heart defect among other medical conditions. The coronavirus that has killed thousands around the globe and hundreds in Michigan puts her at great risk.

Most days, she said she is no longer giddy about starting her day like she was before the virus rocked the nation.

"I get up and just sit there and kind of look and think, 'OK, what am I going to do today?'" Immel said. "I don't have that enthusiasm anymore."

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