The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday April 23rd

Students grapple with whether to see immunocompromised family during COVID-19 outbreak

From left to right: Abby Biehl, Lisa Biehl (mother), Alex Biehl (brother), Lydia Ralston (sister), Gretchen Biehl (sister) and Jay Biehl (father). Photo courtesy of Abby Biehl.
Buy Photos From left to right: Abby Biehl, Lisa Biehl (mother), Alex Biehl (brother), Lydia Ralston (sister), Gretchen Biehl (sister) and Jay Biehl (father). Photo courtesy of Abby Biehl.

Senior Abby Biehl drove home Thursday to Charlotte to pick up some things after moving in with her boyfriend in South Carolina. The things she needed to pick up were set outside the house and Biehl waved goodbye to her parents through a window.

“I don’t know when I can see them again so this whole transition is really scary,” Biehl said.

Biehl’s father, Jay Biehl, had a double-organ transplant in 2012.

“Because of that, he’s immunocompromised, so even with the normal seasonal flu and any sickness at all, we have to totally stay in our bedrooms and stay away from him,” Biehl said.

COVID-19 is especially dangerous for immunocompromised individuals, meaning people whose immune system defenses are weakened. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, immunocompromised individuals can include those with HIV, cancer patients taking immunosuppressive drugs and transplant recipients.

Biehl moved in with her boyfriend to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for her father.

“A lot of people are just doing normal, basic things, but for us it seriously could be life-threatening so it’s a big deal,” Biehl said.

Students like Biehl who have immunocompromised family members have had to make careful decisions in response to COVID-19.

Sophomore Ella Taggart’s father has a chronic heart condition for which he takes two immunosuppressive medications. She traveled to Florida for 10 days during spring break.

“As much as I wanted to go home for comfort and to be with my family during this scary time, I have to consider that he is at a high risk of getting the virus,” Taggart said. “And that for his health and for his safety, it would be important for me to stay especially in the long-term.”

Taggart is from the Bay Area of California, where the risk of coronavirus is higher than in North Carolina. Alameda county, where Taggart’s family lives, announced a “shelter in place” order for its residents last Monday.

“The restrictions are much tighter than here, so while all of us are practicing social distancing, theirs is required by law,” Taggart said. “It is much more enforced and it also is much more restricting on what they can do so that also contributed to why I didn’t think it made sense for me to come home.”

Sophomore Izzy Kintzley returned home to Severna Park, Maryland for spring break before the University sent formal notices in response to coronavirus.

“My mom had a heart transplant three and a half years ago, so she is on a couple of drugs that suppress her immune system and she did chemotherapy and finished that a month ago,” Kintzley said. “Now she’s doing radiation for breast cancer, so it’s double compounded.”

For the past couple of weeks, Kintzley and her sisters were allowed to spend time with friends as long as they kept the six feet of social distance.

Last Friday, Kintzley’s family made the decision to cut off contact with everyone unless absolutely necessary, such as going to the grocery store, for the safety of her mother. Family members who go to the grocery store take precautions including limiting conversation while there, wiping down the car and showering immediately after coming home.

“It seems very little sacrifices to make right now for the long-term,” Kintzley said. “Also, there’s the guilt. If I knew I brought something home to my mom, yes, I would be fine if I got sick because I don’t have any underlying conditions, but for her it’s so dangerous.”

Biehl urged students to practice the recommendations for social distancing and self-quarantine after travel.

“I get it because if I wasn’t directly impacted by it, I wouldn’t think anything of it,” Biehl said. “But it’s not about you. It’s about the people that this could be fatal for."

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