Opinion: Thank you for staying home, Michigan

Ryan Malosh

Thank you, residents of Michigan.

Because you’ve stayed home, my children aren’t fatherless. Because you stayed home, the curve, in many places of our state, has started to flatten. Your efforts have protected me and many others like me. You see, when people write off the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic by saying, “It only kills the old and sick,” they’re talking about me.

I'm 35 and I look healthy now, but last year I could barely walk the length of a football field. I was bald and I had lost 30 pounds. My leukemia diagnosis came out of the blue. One fall Saturday, I was raking leaves, thinking about an upcoming trip to Disney World. By Monday, I was in the hospital. The chemo almost killed me. I spent 48 hours in the ICU, spent some time on a ventilator.

When the drugs didn’t work fast enough, the doctors told me I needed a bone marrow transplant. That meant another month in the hospital and it left me weak. It also was a factory reset on my immune system. For a long time after my transplant, even a minor infection could become life threatening. A few months ago, I was able to stop taking drugs that suppress my immune system, and I started getting my childhood vaccinations again. My transplant was over a year ago and, even now, my immune system is still getting back to full strength.

Here’s the thing about cancer survivors and immunocompromised people: We’ve been social distancing since before it was cool. And we know how hard it can be. For about a year I avoided crowds and sick people. I worked from home. I missed my friends and my extended family. I missed going out to eat at restaurants. I did not miss my commute. On bad days, I would get depressed. Why me? Why us? My wife would hold me while I cried and begged to go back to normal.

An electronic billboard in downtown Lansing encourages residents to "stay home" amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On good days, I was able to watch my youngest son take his first steps, and wrestle with the two older kids. If I was going to be in a crowd or around people who could be sick, I wore a mask. My family and I washed our hands constantly. We were careful about what we ate. For the most part, though, we just stayed home. They created a bubble around me, to protect me. At home we knew the food had been washed properly. We knew that when my kindergartner had a cold I could keep my distance. We did this because it was literally life or death. This March I was set to relax my personal stay-at-home order and return to the office. Needless to say, I didn’t rejoin the world; you all joined me in isolation instead.

I forgot to tell you what I do for work. I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist. I study respiratory viruses. The report of a “cluster of pneumonia with unknown cause” in December scared me. The cases in Washington state scared me even more. Then we got our first cases in Michigan and our outbreak exploded. I know that I’m at much higher risk from this virus than my age would suggest. I know there are a lot of people like me in the world, and that it is not always obvious who we are. I know that long-term social distancing is really, really hard to do.

But right now I know that the data tell me it is working. So thank you for all you’ve done, and all you’ll continue to do. Maybe you stayed home to protect yourselves, or your older relatives. Maybe you stayed home to protect our frontline health care workers, EMTs, fire and police officers.

But by staying home you also protected me and a lot of people like me.  

Ryan Malosh is an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. He studies herd immunity due to vaccination of household contacts, influenza vaccine effectiveness, epidemiology and transmission of respiratory viruses, and social determinants of acute respiratory infection. He is currently working on studies of COVID-19 in the community and household settings.