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Many students turn to Cornell Health to receive health care.

March 19, 2020

Young and Healthy?: Chronically Ill and Disabled Students Grapple with COVID-19

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While some Cornellians partied their class cancellation days away, chronically ill students remain aware that being young does not always mean being healthy.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can mimic those that chronically ill students regularly experience, but the limited availability of testing can make it difficult to find any peace of mind.

Thea Kozakis grad has celiac disease, chronic asthma, heart rate variability and some symptoms of Sjogren’s syndrome — an autoimmune disorder that attacks the salivary gland. Her heart rate variability also restricts which treatments she can use for her asthma.

Kozakis said she currently has a low grade fever, difficulty breathing and multiple contacts with people who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus. But Kozakis often has difficulty breathing, making identifying a cause for her symptoms difficult.

The graduate student was tested for COVID-19 on Monday and will receive her results within the next six days. In the meantime, she remains in medical isolation in her apartment.

“I don’t know what this is. I know I’m sick,” Kozakis said. “If I have the coronavirus, I won’t leave my apartment. I’m not really that far into this but it already feels like I’ve been [in my apartment] forever.”

Kozakis paused many times when speaking because it was difficult for her to breathe. She said she was sad to potentially need to spend her last few months in Ithaca in her apartment, but optimistic about her recovery.

“I have been through so many illnesses that should have killed me,” Kozakis said. “I have a really strong will to live.”

Even for chronically ill students who are not currently experiencing symptoms, the risk of  exposure feels more serious than it would without a pre-existing diagnosis.

Michal Weiss ’20 of Westchester, New York, has an autoimmune disorder which impacts her lungs. She said she was worried about returning home.

Additionally, pre-existing health concerns complicate their decisions to stay on campus or go home.

“Here, I feel comfortable going outside, but back home I would feel very stuck in my house,” Weiss said. “Social distancing is still a thing here, but I can move around a little more here. At home, if I interacted with anyone, there are so many cases that it feels more risky.”

Despite the more than 178 COVID-19 cases in Westchester, Weiss said she would be more comfortable leaving campus if the number of local cases continued to increase, expressing concerns about the quality of healthcare in Ithaca. Tompkins County confirmed its sixth case on Wednesday.

“The healthcare here is a lot worse than the healthcare system at home,” Weiss said. “If the cases increase here, going home would be a better option.”

For Conan Gillis ’21, born with Larsen’s Syndrome, the medical accommodations he receives at Cornell aren’t necessarily available at home.

Gillis requires constant nursing care, but is only approved for Medicaid-funded care in Tompkins County. If he returned home, his family would need to take over providing his medical care.

But if Gillis stays, receiving nursing care could increase his risk of contracting COVID-19. Two of his nurses work at Guthrie Hospital in Sayre, Pennsylvania, and regularly come in close physical contact with Gillis.

“I am just assuming I am going to get it,” he said.

In addition to worrying about his own potential exposure to COVID-19, Gillis worries for the livelihoods of the nurses who work with him.

“The reason I don’t want to go home isn’t so much how I will be taken care of at home, but what my nurses are going to do?” Gillis said. “They are not going to get paid. One of my nurses, I am his only case, so he will have to get another job in order to eat.”