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"There's A Lot Of People Out There Like Me." Immunosuppressed May Not Get Same Protection From COVID-19 Vaccine

A gloved hand holding a vial of Johnson and Johnson's Janssen Vaccine.
Mohammad Shahhosseini
Johnson and Johnson's Janssen Vaccine

The day that Kate Sherrod got vaccinated against COVID-19 was an emotional one.

"It was my first time around strangers in like a year," she said.

Sherrod is immunocompromised, which limits her ability to fight off infections. So she had been stuck at home during the first year of the pandemic. It also meant she was in one of the early priority groups for the vaccine. And after the first shot in March, Sherrod let herself imagine some of the things she'd do once she hit full immunity.

"I'd been looking forward to going to the symphony," she described. "There's a great record store here in town that I've never been to. There's an expedition league baseball team here. I mean, all sorts of things."

Sherrod, who lives in Casper, WY, said when she started to re-emerge after her second shot, it wasn't as safe as she had hoped.

"I noticed that, even before vaccinations were available to the general public, I was seeing people that were acting like it was all over," she said.

She saw very few people wearing masks. And currently, only about 33 percent of her community have gotten vaccinated, which means Sherrod can't depend on herd immunity for protection.

"It's infuriating, because there are perfectly ordinary things I could be doing safely still, if other people were even remotely considerate," she said.

With a couple of exceptions, a lot of the region's vaccination rates hover around 40 percent. That makes life difficult for people with an autoimmune disease, like Kate Sherrod. Because of the drugs she takes for it, her immune system may not do its job when it encounters the vaccine. Evan Crump is a pharmacist in Laramie.

"The way a traditional vaccine works, it has a little bit of that disease, and it goes into the body," he said. “A healthy immune system sees that foreign object and starts to build antibodies towards them to fight that off to protect our body."

It's a little different with mRNA vaccines, like the Moderna or Pfizer. Crump said one way to think about it is, "instead of bringing a bit of the disease in, they bring in a picture of what the immune system needs to watch out for. The body learns that and then starts to make antibodies."

"It's infuriating, because there are perfectly ordinary things I could be doing safely still, if other people were even remotely considerate."

But if your immune system isn't working properly, you may not develop those antibodies. This is potentially the case for at least 10 million Americans who have a compromised immune system. That group includes people with organ transplants, cancer patients, and those living with HIV.

"There's so many other disease states out there where maybe they get some response, but they're not getting a full response from the COVID vaccine, and they're just so vulnerable," Crump said.

According to AARP, most doctors treating patients with these conditions are still recommending they get a coronavirus vaccine, since some protection is better than none.

May Chu, with the Colorado School of Public Health, said after getting vaccinated, that part of the population may want to take other precautions, like staying home and masking up when you leave the house. As for those with healthy immune systems, Chu said they can help, too — by getting vaccinated.

"We have a personal responsibility to make sure they're safe," she said.

Kate Sherrod would like to see more of her community get vaccinated. But she's not counting on it.

"There's a lot of people out there like me. This question is hanging over our heads: 'Did the vaccine help? Or was it a false hope?' And we're not going to know until some research is done," she said.

Currently, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and NYU Langone Health are studying the vaccine responses of patients with suppressed immune systems. That could give someone like Sherrod better answers. In the meantime, she's finding ways to soak up summer while staying safe, like picnics on Casper Mountain with her sister, and tending to her vegetable garden. She's even managed to make it to a baseball game.

"Because that's outdoors and the stadium is way bigger than the crowds," she said, which makes it easier to sit back, and enjoy the game.

(Correction 7/21/21: An earlier version of this story said Kate Sherrod picnics on Casper Mountain with her son. It has been corrected to say her sister.)

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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