A woman holding a mask with a facemask on it, text above stating "when captors masquerade as allies"

When Captors Masquerade as Allies

As of June, 2021, I will have been eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine for over four months now as a Solid Organ Transplant Recipient. I am a person who received a liver transplant, younger than the average at the age of 35. My transplant journey is a rough story concerning my life-long battle with Hepatitis C, six treatments, and six plus years in End-Stage-Liver Disease you can read more about the story here.

Because this story isn’t about me, per se, but about the circumstance that I find myself in, along with so many of my peers. Before I explain further all of this, some background is in order as to explain the importance of understand the nuanced differences in vaccine hesitancy and folks who are among the “unvaccinated”.

I belong to part of a large group of vulnerable folks, collectively, spoonies is the best term here. Because the complex mix of auto-immune, genetic, medically induced and viral infection induced immune responses include lots of folks. From folks with certain cancers, folks with HIV, to folks like myself who take medication which suppresses our immune system.

Collectively it’s estimated that we comprise about 4-7% of the United States population, with about 2.7% of the population being transplant recipients like myself.

Many of us who might benefit less from the vaccine, will continue living as if nothing has changed. Masking regularly indoors, outdoors in groups, increasing our hand-washing and keeping some physical distance from others, especially if near crowds, and minimizing interactions.

There are many estimations of when Community Immunity may take hold, somewhere between 70-90% is the average of all the literature and articles I’ve come across. In Brazil, the efforts to induce natural herd immunity, in part by relaxing non-pharmaceutical interventions like mask wearing, resulted in the population of Manaus having as many as 76% of the population infected, and also provided us with the P.1 Brazilian variant now being referred to as the Gamma variant. So to be at the the functional level needs to rely more heavily on vaccine induced immunity, in part because it potentially lasts longer. More importantly it is more robust than natural immunity as more documented cases of reinfection have occurred through natural immunity, especially in regards to Variants of Concern. And it slows the potential for new variants due to significantly reduced levels of viral procreation when vaccinated. (aka less viral load in vaccinated folks means less potential for evolution into new variants, because it doesn’t generally evolve in the wild, just in people/animals.)

As Variants of Concern continue to appear due to the uncontrolled and widespread state the pandemic is currently in, we must consider that these will eventually impact transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2., as both the Alpha variant (AKA UK variant AKA B.1.1.7 variant) and the Beta(AKA South African Variant AKA B.1.351 Variant) have. How this in turn is met with growing vaccine uptake, time is slowly revealing.

For those not familiar, this is the Kaiser Family Foundation Vaccine Montior. An important constant pulse on vaccine uptake and trends here in the United States. Crucially, it has been monitoring the Already got it vs ASAP vs Wait and See vs only if required vs Definitely not.

Within the Spoonie communities some of us may attempt to get the vaccine, anecdotally, many who have reported higher than average instances of side effects, or no effect whatsoever. For others in the Solid Organ Transplant situation concerned about the vaccine check this out, it won’t help you make your decision, but it might help inform it a bit more, especially if you check their references.

Now for the reference to the title of this piece, who are these captors?
The vaccine hesitant for non-medical reasons, and most importantly those who would refuse themselves and their children the safety of a protective vaccine.

For spoonies like myself who long for a return to seeing friends and family, going to a graduation, a wedding, even a funeral, there is little hope in reaching community immunity without the help of those who also fall into haven’t gotten the vaccine category. For veterans of the spoonie community, we’re no strangers to phonies, con-artists, scammers, and conspiracies, especially on the internet, not to mention the people who call them out, and people who accidentally call out real Spoonies. When you achieve a certain level of fame on Instagram, some spoonies find themselves fighting off fake accounts, copies of their own who grift unexpecting folks. We’re used to folks pretending to be disabled standing next to us in line for a Disability Access Pass in Disneyland, or folks who claim medical exemptions for hardships where none exist. And we’re used to the increased scrutiny and disbelief of our condition if not visibly apparent. For some it reinforces imposter syndrome, it encourages them to avoid seeking help, there are layers to these problems which are important to know exist as we explore the reality for folks like me in 2021 in regards to vaccine hesitancy.

The alarmingly high number of 13-15% of folks answering definitely not to the vaccine likely includes a small portion of folks like myself to more extreme cases who absolutely cannot get any COVID-19 Vaccine.  But even without considering that, we can be assured that this % is not consistent state-by-state, and significantly different between rural and urban populations.

We see that among rural populations, the majority of folks who would not be vaccinated number as high as 21% on average. It is impossible to extract from this data where spoonies might fall. Because some of us have already gotten the vaccine, many like myself wait and see, and some already know they cannot take the vaccine, or are so alarmed by side effects they’ll only do so if required, and even then they may quit or be fired.

Let’s assume the upper limit of 28%, a stat where every spoonie cannot vaccinate, with a lower limit of 23%, where only a few spoonies vaccinate successfully against SARS-CoV-2. It means that on average among rural populations the vaccination rate might not breach 72-77%, clearly around or below the 76% which existed in Manaus for their attempt to gain Herd Immunity. Again, Vaccine Induced immunity is likely stronger against SARS-CoV-2 and its VOCs, but at such low rates of vaccination, it poses a significant danger in a different way: Reservoirs. Reservoirs (of infection) are individuals, animals, plants, substance, soil or a location which the virus lives and multiplies. Reservoirs make it hard to eliminate an epidemic, in the U.S. and other countries the prison system does this with Tuberculosis and Hep C. As populations in the prisons have significantly higher incidence of disease than populations outside prisons. Reservoirs don’t’ work well if those folks aren’t intermingling but unfortunately…

Another chart form KFF tells us why, unfortunately, most folks who are won’t vaccinate know one another.

Note the highest groups are among Republicans and Evangelicals, collectively amounting to more than 40% of either not vaccinating or needing for it to be required. It is likely that many of these folks attend the same churches, belong to the same or nearby communities, and will otherwise engage with significantly less regard or no for interventions like mask-wearing, social distancing or extra hand-washing. (46% according to the same KFF Vaccine Monitor) Making it more likely that if they are infected, that they may spread it to others who are also not following interventions.

We’re familiar with this problem it exists in the US in a variety of ways, In 2017, Minnesota’s Measles outbreak was due to a Somali-American community being fooled into opting out of the MMR vaccination. Granted, the vaccination rate among the group was as low as 41% among children, its important to consider that outside of this group the vaccination rate is likely near 95%+ for neighboring communities. If the community intermingles with other anti-vaxx communities they bear the risk of spreading it further, or worse trading it back and forth between groups who are similarly unprotected against the virus.

The reality of new cases going forward is this, in Seattle early June 2021, they found that 97% of cases had occurred in unvaccinated folks. It’s worth mentioning that when vaccinated the likelihood of symptoms and severe COVID-19 is significantly reduced due to it being a protective vaccine, so it is highly unlikely that even if a vaccinated individual came down with symptoms that they might even go the hospital or even be tested without a severe response. In addition more folks with less severe symptoms are less likely to be counted among cases as they’re likely staying home following best guidance.

That being said, it means that unvaccinated folks are where the virus will live, and where it will evolve, and the tight-nit anti-vaxx communities are ripe for being reservoirs.

With this information in mind, lets revisit the title again: When captors masquerade as allies.

The Fault in our Stare Decisis

Anyone paying attention can clearly note that folks who might be vaccine hesitant, by nature, aren’t necessarily allies to Spoonies who live with health conditions limiting their daily lives.

When someone with a health condition needs accommodation to be able to enter, use, or otherwise act in an equitable legal fashion in a public space, or space available to the public, the ADA is often invoked. When someone is employed, and an employer seeks to unfairly punish an employee due to the specific conditions or imposes requirements which make the employee unfit for their role, the ADA can be invoked. If you’re interested in learning how the ADA came about, it’s a ton of activism. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a tool for folks with legitimate disabilities to help the world become a more equitable place. It allows folks who might otherwise be excluded, an opportunity to be included. Additionally, another law often utilized by Spoonies, patients or folks with disabilities, is Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA. For school children FERPA might also apply, but that’s a whole ‘nother bag of worms. HIPAA protects records from being used against us, by securing them, otherwise it would be likely that employers, insurance, and even hospitals themselves might use this data is other ways. By securing privacy of health information, It prevents stigmatized conditions from discrimination, prevents insurance from specifically coordinating with the employer to charge you more, prevents hospitals from profiting off the data by selling it to pharma/med device/tech companies. You don’t have to disclose your health status, because of a complex interpretation of the constitution by the Supreme Court regarding the right to privacy, but it won’t help getting out of wearing a mask or not being asked about vaccination status. Specifically Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Eisenstadt v Baird  (1971), Roe v. Wade (1972), and Lawrence v. Texas (2003) are generally the cases which really cement the Right to Privacy.

These two laws, in concert with the Stare Decisis (Court Opinions regarding legal situations involving these laws which expands or modifies their interpretation) of courts in regards to them, create the legal shields which help some folks stay employed, work, live, seek education, or simply interact with the world.

As many who might want to ignore rules for their own personal reasons, might seek to misuse these protections, to shield themselves from responsibility. Over the year+ of this Pandemic, multiple different clearly fake cards have been produced claiming that these two laws would allow the bearer the ability to ignore Public Health protocols being privately enforced by businesses, or publicly enforced for national security, when they most certainly do not.

Obviously, these cards are meaningless as the claims on them. But they bring about the next/current reality, Fake vaccine cards and fake vaccine exemptions.

Airlines are now finding this problem to be incredibly challenging to police since there is no official method of tracking vaccination in a way which could be used as a confirmatory check, in spite of dozens of apps, programs which are all capable of doing so, many of which were field tested during the pandemic by universities.

While they might wield the ADA and HIPAA like a club, they masquerade as folks who need it.
Now, as the vaccination effort approaches a critical juncture, we see this same poisonous-allyship. To avoid personal responsibility, a handful will pretend to be spoonies. But even when they do not masquerade, the reality of their not taking the vaccine means a lower likelihood of community immunity, and they remain captors of folks who have no choice in the matter.

I wish this were the end of the part about anti-vaxx co-opting of the “unvaccinated” category, but sadly TikTok has become a strange place for anti-vaxxers to have a new trend. From the hunger games “I volunteer as tribute” phrase and salute to even using the mocking Jay whistle. This is much like the opposite of those attempting to masquerade as allies, but here instead as unvaccinated spoonies being lumped in with their “solidarity” for being unvaccinated. For Spoonies who have no other alternative to being vaccinated, or for Spoonies like myself where the vaccine is less likely to work, this is beyond insulting. We already advocate for real health problems, we don’t need this weird diversion of focus.

As spoonies we must wait for community immunity or the virus to become a minimal threat and no longer endemic to a region. Both of those are tall orders right now given those who would masquerade as allies are now effectively holding us captive, as for many of us spoonies with immune-issues will continue on as if it were still rampant, for we were the vulnerable population before the vaccine’s availability, now we could end up being even more so.

It’s also imperative we have highest possible vaccination rates for another reason: National Security.
For those uncertain about all of this, national security and disease control go hand in hand. After all, the Spanish Flu (H1N1) killed more people than any battle during World War One.

Unfortunately last month the CDC announcement of their new mask guidelines began a terrible trend. The CDC recommendation ignores evidence of transmission from vaccinated folks being similar to that of asymptomatic cases. Why is that concerning?

Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases have been the dominant method of the last year for transmission. ” transmission from asymptomatic individuals was estimated to account for more than half of all transmission” This predominantly due to our minimizing interactions, use of symptom checkers like thermometers, and mostly because folks who felt ill were told to stay home and given additional sick days to accomplish this. So now, as we move about again, and the majority of folks, functionally become like asymptomatic cases, are less likely to be tested because they are vaccinated, and are less likely to feel unwell, prompting less caution regarding transmission. Public health experts have repeatedly gone out of their way over the past month to explain the necessity of these masks after vaccination, and a recent study highlights these points. And with the data that we’re seeing here, with so many folks not vaccinating, The CDC mask policy only makes unvaccinated folks more vulnerable. So to see that Cal/OSHA, Newsom and the lot of them caved again to “business leaders” AKA Big business is absolutely unconscionable for a number of reasons. And to cave in an odd way, to no longer recommend that workers, even in high-risk jobs, wear a mask is likely due to additional pressure from the recall campaign.

1. Pandemic still raging around the world, importation risks remain high, especially with new VOCs.

2. It’s not even close to eliminated here in the US, and with states like Florida abandoning important info and their COVID-19 dashboard, (despite being the likely source of new VOCs in the US due to their lax testing criteria and outright dangerous vaccine policies for travelers, and the medical tourism for vaccines) transparency is WORSE than in March 2021 when dashboards finally started working.

3. The tests still kinda suck! Due to the windows of false negatives no current test breaches about 60-80% in sensitivity aka false negative rate. The problem is the way the virus does it’s thing compared to the administration of the test on the patient timeline, some more sensitive tests exists, and saliva testing has shown to be more robust in early detection than more typical NP/OP swabs.

4. The CDC mask guidance dropped months earlier than it should have, using them as guidance to make things consistent has nothing to do with health, rather with consistent regulation showcases our Safety 3rd mentality regarding health regulation.

5. When we consider the rates of potential folks who cannot vaccinate alongside the folks who will not, these numbers make community immunity potentially our of reach, especially with continued importation of cases, which can see more clearly with VOCs. All of these decisions seem quite premature.

In situations like this, caution is the better decision, moving slowly, with available data.

Right, Rick, but how does this affect you personally?
I’m a transplant patient, who is planning my vaccination with my doc, it means waiting more than I’d like, it means seeing those around me start to engage in a slowly opening world. It means saying no to networking opportunities, potential career-boosting opportunities, and a great deal of advocacy. It means having limited interactions with friends and family even though the vast majority are vaccinated. Having close family members who are also in the same Spoonie boat, increases our vulnerability. I’ve already spent 6 years in end stage liver disease and the last year damn, I know the fear and potential pain many in the community sense or feel. Unfortunately the vaccine may not even take due to my immunosuppressant meds and in the rare event that my antibodies are detected, it is not recommended as a confirmatory test on immunity.

Thankfully, I live in a community likely to have high levels of vaccination, and have local leaders who understand the interplay between border cities and are donating vaccine supply to San Diego’s other half, Tijuana.

But while SD county only has about 19% of its population unvaccinated currently, neighboring Imperial County has about 32% of its population currently unvaccinated. You san see County by County data here.

charts showing vaccine rates
Red represents conservative leaning counties, San Diego still slightly leans conservative.

These percentage points, combined with the reality of growing interstate travel and vacation use, means as a tourist destination, San Diego is also likely to see more importation cases from neighboring states with less regard for health and safety. So while San Diego folks are more cognizant of their health, tourists might not be.

Okay, well that was awful, is there anything that can be done? Or are we just fucked?

I mean, for those of us in the spoonie community, we know how common the latter is, but in this case there is more that can be done. While states give away money, or Xboxes, cars, or whatever else seems clever, the reality is that folks who aren’t interested aren’t likely to be swayed by a SWOT analysis. They’re likely to be influenced by their peers. Some “Maskueraders” won’t understand so easily and it may take time for them to understand the real risk and adjust their worldview. Patience and tolerance is important.

If we want to be free again in this country, in this world, we must be prepared to protect our community, our nation, and our world, by at the least getting a vaccine for COVID-19. It probably would also help if the federal and state governments could agree on a standard for ensuring vaccination, like having some kind of universal database (it exists with HHS already it’s just not connected to anything outside of a few departments) having at the very least a robust nationwide Electronic Health Record system would help in every health fight, improve mobility within systems, reduce administrative costs, streamline costs/billing and further the goals of health equity in the American population.

As someone who has been fighting to Eliminate a different Epidemic (Viral Hepatitis) It’s imperative that we talk with friends and family about being vaccinated and encourage others around us to be honest and take the vaccine when they can.


In the meantime, please wear a mask when around others in close quarters, or in mass gatherings/mass transit, and if you aren’t yet vaccinated and can get it, please do and encourage friends and family to do the same.

TLDR:
Vaccine rates won’t go down unless we talk to our friends, family and neighbors and make sure everyone who can vaccinate does. The CDC Mask policy makes the pre-emptive reopening potentially worse, and worse for unvaccinated folks who account for nearly all cases in the US. Anti-vax folks pretending to be disabled doesn’t help anyone. Blending the category of unvaccinated conversationally benefits anti-vax movement, as they pretend to be martyrs (who don’t think they’re going to die? it’s confusing) Expanding poor health policy only further erodes what little public health trust exists in institutions.
We can always hope it’ll turn out alright, but as a six time survivor of Hep C treatments, my caution regarding Epidemics is imbedded.

Johansson MA, Quandelacy TM, Kada S, et al. SARS-CoV-2 Transmission From People Without COVID-19 Symptoms. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(1):e2035057. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.35057

La Marca, A., Capuzzo, M., Paglia, T., Roli, L., Trenti, T., & Nelson, S. M. (2020). Testing for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19): A systematic review and clinical guide to molecular and serological in-vitro diagnostic assays. Reproductive Biomedicine Online, 41(3), 483–499. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rbmo.2020.06.001

Patel MD, Rosenstrom E, Ivy JS, et al. Association of Simulated COVID-19 Vaccination and Nonpharmaceutical Interventions With Infections, Hospitalizations, and Mortality. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(6):e2110782. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.10782

Rick J Nash in his graduation cap and gown on campus at CSUSM also wearing his MPH stole and hood.

Successful Defenses

In 2014, while almost three years into end stage liver disease and recovering from c.diff (clostridium difficile colitis for those imbibing their daily Latin) it’s transferred via fecal-oral, so when someone doesn’t wash their hands making food, and unfortunately it dries ya out distributing one’s contents most expeditiously through the major available routes.) , I was in a strange space. I knew that the end might be coming soon, and when I was told that if my vitals (my INR was almost okay  but my Bilirubin was stupid high) didn’t improve, I would likely be brought to the liver transplant floor at my other hospital.

I remember not being allowed to leave the room except with another person with me, I remember walking with a friend of mine, who had a heart condition, and together with another spoonie friend with severe lupus we called ourselves “lifers” due to our likelihood of shortened lifespans. I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C at age 12 and told by 30 I would likely need a liver transplant or die. (And he was pretty freakin’ close.)

Hospitalized in 2014

I saw my reflection in the glass in the garden I wasn’t allowed to go into. It was distressing visualizing the reality of my more imminent potential demise.

We spoke of the fear, of the reality ahead, that I would likely wait for weeks in the hospital, in this situation. I wasn’t quite dying just yet, but my liver’s Model for End-stage Liver Disease MELD Score had jumped into the 30s. which meant I was nearly a candidate for liver transplant, and my liver would soon need replacement. There were no guarantees, a person dies every ten minutes waiting on the transplant list in the United States. (btw register to be an organ donor today, save a life or 8 donatelife.net)

I didn’t entirely know what to do, and when my friend left, I started looking for solutions. Being a patient for as long as I had, and having just started writing about my experiences, I felt it important know everything in power about my condition, so that I could better explain the road ahead to others. So that night, I researched, I had found that bilirubin was not only the primary reason for my Simpson’s skin tone I was rockin’, but also my constant itching. And more importantly I’d learned that when babies are born and have high bilirubin or show jaundice, they put them under a UV/Sun lamp, because it helps break down bilirubin.  That had to be it. My INR(clotting factor) and bilirubin(liver stuff) had not budged since they plateaued on day three of my stay.  But I was convinced I had found a solution. I spoke to the nurses, explained I wanted to go for a walk outside the hospital. It took an amount of conversation before they were amenable to my request, but with a CNA, I was allowed to walk around outside. Then later I repeated this, until I was walking outside for about 40 minutes per day during peak times of UV (10am-2pm for the curious), at 11am, and a little before 2pm. My bilirubin began to drop by day 5 in the hospital, and I was released on Day 7. My research had paid off, I was able to better understand the circumstance and ensure my own improvement. Something I could do for others with the hindsight of my experience, but this, helped me decide I wanted to learn how to research better. I wanted my Master’s In Public Health.

For the next two years, every doctor’s, outpatient procedure, hospital visit I had I absorbed everything, every question I could ask, every thing I could learn, and naturally, I would reflect my interest in earning my MPH. It also gave more meaning to my family’s and my exhausting terrible journey, it let me turn a stigmatized  and debilitating disease, into a badge I wore with distinction. In 2016, when NoHep2030 Launched, it only further added to my new goal: Help Eliminate the disease which had nearly killed me and my mother. I found purpose.

2016 was a year filled with so much, from the launch of NoHep, to my advocacy efforts in Sacramento, to one of my best friend’s weddings, and unfortunately, not long after, I became too sick to treat. July 2016, My liver damage was too far gone, without a transplant soon, I would likely die within the year, and certainly by a years’ time. The stress and uncertainty that befell my family and friends were challenging, they would help me see that my resilience was bolstered by their own. I had accepted my likely imminent death, and hoped and persisted in living as best as I could. My mother’s guilt, wore heavy, and words can do little to describe the hollow feeling in my family of the grim reality ahead. But after years of grueling, waiting, in the beginning of December, my family received the best Christmas gift we could have ever wanted. I received a liver transplant.

Liver transplant with my surgeon

After my transplant, I was to be on Disability and Medicare+Medicaid for about two years following the slow recovery. Disability has an amazing program called Ticket-To-Work, it allows the person who uses it to not only cover the cost of their education, but continues to pay the same disability and most importantly delays disability hearing until after graduation (Disability hearings are rarely won, of folks I know who have tried, two of twelve have been able to remain in the program.) This would have allowed me get my MPH, and get a well-paying job after graduation, and rise up out of the under-the-poverty line life of disability.

After my transplant my Hep C came back with a vengeance. It skyrocketed to over a hundred million, (for reference like 10 million is really high) and it would not be long until my new liver was reinfected. The treatment was quickly approved, though off-label, it was the only possible combination which could have solved my unique variant strain of Hep C. I’d suggested a similar combination of meds a year earlier, but had become too sick to treat before one could be attempted.

The treatment is its own story of chaos, denials, appeals, near lawsuits and a go-fund-me page, but ultimately I wouldn’t find out the result of the treatment until September.

GoFundMe for my sixth treatment

During the chaos of my sixth treatment for hepatitis C, I’d also applied for the MPH program at Cal State University San Marcos, I spoke with my colleagues in patient advocacy and friend’s mom who had been a preceptor(people to look at candidates to a program) for SDSU. I was surprised to find out that my application to the program had been rejected. My letters of support were good, my essay was heartwarming and thoughtful, I was at a loss for why.

Being honored at the 2017 Liver Gala as their Liver Champion and 2017 Liver Activist for American Liver Foundation, pic with my awesome docs

Until I remembered something. When I graduated CSUSM in 2009, I had a 2.89 GPA, high enough for the 2.5 GPA threshold of the MPH program. However, after I graduated, I worked for a School District for 39 hours per week. This was pre-ACA, so I had no option for insurance, and with a preexisting condition, losing my insurance meant, I could be denied health insurance and thus treatment, if I did not maintain my health insurance. With an economy in shambles, my only option was to continue going to school after work, halfway through my first semester I began my at the time second treatment for Hep C. It was brutal, and the long hours along with school would discourage my application to many of these classes. The resulting Ds and Fs on my record from this time, were now interfering with my ability to enter grad school. I’d explained the circumstance, and that my grades following my graduation do not reflect my ability as a student, but the necessity of my livelihood in a broken health insurance system. This wasn’t enough.  In order to get into the program, I would need to expunge these bad credits. It would be impossible to hunt down the 10 or so likely adjunct professors from near seven years prior, I needed a better solution. I found one in academic renewal, by taking 30 new credits I could wipe out 30 bad credits and improve my Cumulative GPA.

While I’d lost a step, having been in end-stage liver disease for over five years, and living with hepatic encephalopathy for as long, I’d resolved that my experience at Community college would tell me if I were capable of doing what I’d dreamed of, earning my MPH, writing my book, and helping to eliminate Hep C. Classes took a moment to refamiliarize myself, I was able to cover school thanks to the California promise grant. I aced through community college, taking a few fun courses like Ceramics and genetics, and some more challenging ones like statistics and a social media marketing. But when I’d applied again, my academic renewal had not yet gone through, causing the same rejection from the school, which would postpone my entrance until 2019. Each time I applied I added more recommendation letters, and referenced more of the advocacy work I had been doing during this time (I was working for Help4Hep, writing for Hepmag.com and HepatitisC.net, had started working for UCSD as a patient stakeholder, and was doing a lot of public speaking.)

2019 Patient advocacy pictures

In 2019, a few months into my new job, I was accepted into the MPH program at CSUSM. I was elated, finally, I could take the first step I’d been wanting to take to help join the fight to eliminate Hep C.

So it turns out working full time, and doing an accelerated masters program at the same time, is a quite time-intensive and stressful. Doing this during the pandemic, was even more challenging, let alone when my thesis topic is the pandemic. Between the panic attacks, depression, shoulder dislocations, optical migraines, a bout of cellulitis, my thesis Chair having to go out on medical leave a month before my defense, the process itself is also a story for another time. But regardless of all of these things, healthy pacing and preparedness, and peer support helped me carry on.

On April 28, 2021, I successfully defended my thesis. (I can’t show ya it though, I emgargoed it, so I can publish it.) and on May 22nd, I will begin my renewed birth in life.

But I am most excited to share with the world, the good I can do.

I hope to help change how we see patient advocacy. I hope to empower thousands of folks when I am done.

Just as I did in my life before transplant, as a leader of a grant-based 6 to 6 program, and eventual consultant. I do not aim for the moon, I aim for the community I serve.

Socio-Ecological Model Grounding Exercise

For a brief explainer on what the Socio-Ecological Model Grounding Exercise is, and how it transforms the model for personal use please check out our IGTV on it

We will be running workshops on an irregular basis through the HCVME Community Discord Server The first was at 5PM Pacific on March 19th, the next will be on May 7th! The Fillable PDF and a .Docx alternative are available in the HCVME Community Discord Server.

Another way to download the SEM Grounding Exercise for you in a fillable PDF format which is exclusively for your own personal use and should NOT be SUBMITTED Click here It will ask for an email address to download it, this is for HCVME to be able to see how many times people have downloaded it, and email addresses collected in this way will only be used to send updates when workshops around the SEM GE come about. Make sure to click download in the first PDF reader!

For those unfamiliar with the Socio-ecological model here are some visual examples of variations on the model from different organizations.

https://mchnutritiontrainees.com/2019/04/30/promoting-healthy-weight-colloquium-3-0-a-socio-ecological-perspective-policy-at-all-levels/

This last one is interesting in the way it incorporates culture as an additional layer, from a sociological standpoint that’s largely unnecessary as culture is a component within each layer, so separating it is likely for the particular application’s emphasis on the importance of culture’s impact at each level as well.

Let’s get connected!

Often have I searched the internet wondering, where can I find helpful Hep C resources now that HCV Advocate is gone? Well there’s HepMag, Help4Hep (if you need help with treatment give ’em a call!), IhelpC, and HepatitisC.net, but they’re really good tools for information or story sharing, or delicious liver friendly eats(IHelpC). To help provide a space where we can connect with others who have experienced Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) or those who seek treatment, advice, guidance, or want to do more in the community!

This is the HCVME Community Discord It will prompt you to create a discord account. Due to the public nature of the discord, I have required a registered Discord account. Additionally I’ve set up a channel which features the latest from twitter regarding Viral Hep and Liver disease. featuring advocates like myself, but also liver organizations and medical experts. I’ll be on there posting HCV resource information and what not periodically. and come June, I’ll be on the discord regularly for chats! Please join us! make sure to agree to the rules and pick a role with fits you!

In May we’ll be launching the HepChat Hour on Monday evenings Pacific time 5:00pm-6:00pm on the HCVME Community Discord!

The Federal Government needs to step up to help eliminate Viral Hepatitis.

As a patient advocate, I often find myself taking a yearly trip (or a few) in the spring to speak with lawmakers and their offices. I speak to a number of injustices. I say this because they’re a strange combination of factors from willful defiance of the law to intentional underfunding likely due to in part to stigma and in part because it wasn’t “actionable” until 2013. Actionable, in this case, refers to investing in something that can improve or have a result which is desired. In truth, the only treatment prior to 2013 was still a crapshoot with a 70% cure rate (this rate does not include dropouts). Prior to 2013, there was little reason for an elected official to care about Hepatitis C (HCV), as little could be done. But in 2013, when a new treatment could help the millions suffering from Hepatitis C, instead, states restricted access to the treatments because they were expensive. (In truth if every American with HCV were treated for HCV with those prices, the numbers would run in the trillions, as it was about 88k per treatment and HCV affects between 3-6 million Americans. But due to the structure of healthcare here and the fact that more than 50% of people with HCV in the U.S. are unaware of their status, that could never have actually happened.) But when the prices fell, some states maintained the restrictions, some even expanded them. In 2015, CMS(Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) stepped in and issued a memo ensuring that all state Medicaid offices should not have restrictions for HCV meds. Despite both the significant decline in cost of the medications and the mandate of the 2015 CMS reiteration, 11 states continue to use liver damage restrictions, 34 states along with D.C. and P.R. continue to use sobriety restrictions, and 27 states along with D.C. and P.R. continue to use prescriber restrictions on access to Hepatitis C medications. In Texas, a Hepatitis C patient must be permanently injured with cirrhosis before they can access treatment. These restrictions are illegal, yet they persist. If you want to see a great breakdown of just how bad this is.

The State of Hep C with Medicaid Access (courtesy of StateOfHepC.org)

 Something as simple as an additional memo from the White House to CMS, giving them the ability to enforce the coverage and encourage Managed Care Organizations (Insurance organizations but for Medicare/Medicaid) to remove the restrictions might help ensure access to Hep C medications in states like Texas. An uncharacteristic hyper-regulated health access policy stance possibly due to strategic ignorance under the belief that it is more thrifty to deny live-saving medications to their residents. If you live in Texas, Montana, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Alabama, or West Virginia, have Hep C and are in need of assistance, please check out Help4Hep, give ’em a call they’re a great group with helpful resources. Otherwise, maybe find your representative and tell them how absurd this is?

 The other matter also involves a certain ignorance; however, this one does not have the willful defiance fueling needless death. Hepatitis C has been chronically underfunded for decades. It currently is funded at 39 million at the federal level. That’s about 12 cents per person for the entire United States. For a condition which affects between 3-6 million Americans, and an additional 1.2-2.2 million with Hepatitis B, it is painfully surprising how little funding has gone into helping patients with viral hepatitis. I recently learned in preparation for a meeting with a house rep, that we lack significant analysis of viral hepatitis as federally, there is only one part-time epidemiologist for all of California’s nearly 40 million residents regarding viral hepatitis.

Virtual Hill Days have temporarily replace typical Hill visits

Right now, NVHRHep B Foundation, Hep B UnitedNASTAD, and others are hoping to expand the budget for viral hepatitis. The CDC has estimated that it would require an annual commitment of at least 316 million dollars to put the United States on the path towards viral Hepatitis Elimination. The current suggestion is to increase the budget to 134 million, less than half of what the CDC estimated is necessary. While personally, it’s disappointing to imagine a world where people disagree with public health priorities, we have positioned ourselves for modest but strategic gains in funding in this decreased ask. Because at 134 million, that’s still less than 50 cents per person in the United States.

This funding would expand one of the most critical elements of Viral hepatitis elimination, screening. In 2020, the CDC finally expanded screening recommendations to all adults and rescreening people who use injection drugs and during each pregnancy. While the latter has been met with some resistance from OBGYN groups, the other recommendations are slowly being implemented across insurance networks. (this is why OBGYN groups are misguided in their approach) This new recommendation is meaningless without expanded testing, especially in communities disproportionately affected by Viral Hepatitis. That testing is naturally limited by the current meager national funding. State and local efforts have a hard time gathering support without grassroots groups due to the silent stigma of Viral Hepatitis. Enhancing funding for screening in Federally Qualified Medical Centers and other community clinics would expand the reach of Hep C diagnosis into the heart of the #MissingMillions and start to help people where they are. But screening is only the door; it’s important that folks and doctors are ready to help guide and link patients with hepatitis c to treatment and ultimately cure/elimination.

2016 I joined with CalHep to help expand linkage-to-care.

In 2016, CalHep, formerly a program for Project Inform, now a part of the San Francisco Aids Foundation, led an effort to have several targeted linkage to care programs for Hep C in California. In total, the program was successfully funded for three years, with two million going into primarily three linkage-to-care or physician-education programs. It was very successful, but ultimately it would not be extended in 2018 due in part to Gov. Brown’s stance on long-term funding. This program’s total cost was roughly 6 million dollars. This is a familiar figure to me, as my bill to insurance total sits at a bit over 6 million dollars for all of my care as a Hep C patient since diagnosis. Efforts like CalHep are scattered throughout the country and have been empowered by local campaigns like End Hep C S.F. and Hep Free NYC. These grassroots groups are the backbone of Viral Hepatitis elimination in the U.S., and are in place ready to be empowered by increased funding. Groups like Hep Free Hawaii, like End Hep C San Diego, work as private-public partnerships with stakeholder groups. Most elimination campaigns are paired with or work with local Harm Reduction groups. This is a natural fit, as there is no way to eliminate hep c without addressing its most common transmission route, intravenous drug use. Harm Reduction groups add to the grassroots power of Hep C elimination. As folks at End Hep S.F. have seen, when people are cured of HCV, they accomplish secondary goals and may have an easier time controlling their substance use; it is an incredible state change being free of viral hepatitis, an otherwise death sentence. Grassroots organizations aren’t just here in the United States, NoHep is worldwide; as a program from the World Health Organization and World Hepatitis Alliance, it serves to connect and share data with micro-elimination movements around the world. This is our time to come together and end viral hepatitis. We have the tools: Vaccines for Hep A and B, and Curative treatments for Hep C; we have the people willing to do the work, now we need support.) 

 You can help. This year, Congress is poised to pass healthcare legislation that can improve the lives of millions of Americans. Allocating $134 million for the CDC Division of Viral Hepatitis and $120 million for the CDC Infectious Diseases Consequences of the Opioid Epidemic Program in Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations budget would bring us one ACTIONABLE step closer to Hep C elimination. In 2016 the USA joined in the WHO NoHep Pledge for global elimination of Viral Hepatitis by 2030, but it’s fallen short so far and taken years to take simple steps like universal screening for Hep C, while Hep B still needs universal screening recommendations from the CDC. This funding step would be the first real investment made by the United States’ federal government towards Viral Hepatitis elimination in the U.S. Let’s end Viral Hepatitis.


Unconvinced? Check out what Frank Hood has to say, he’s the Manager of Hepatitis Advocacy for The AIDS Institute and an all around great guy.

Get Tested, Get Treated, Get Cured.

PS it wouldn’t hurt if we fully got rid of the federal ban on funding Syringe Service Providers, it would provide a helpful destigmatizing avenue for people seeking treatment.

Hep C On a Plane, Expect Delays

We had just wrapped up a three day conference for Help4Hep, and I was wearing a shirt, a shirt I originally wore for a press conference against the BRCA.(The awful replacement for the ACA on the senate floor last year.) A  form fitting black cotton T-shirt that reads: “Hello, My preexisting condition is Hepatitis C.” The shirt’s purpose was to bring to people’s attention two things:  One that Preexisting conditions aren’t really visible, but they are common, and Two, That Hepatitis C is among them, and I have it. Even while being cured of Hep C, in the eyes of the medical world and insurance I will forever be a Hepatitis C patient.

Maybe it was because I was standing alone before we boarded, maybe it’s because I was visible, sitting in the front, but regardless why the next series of events happened, it’s unfortunate that they did.

IMG_20180612_112421.jpg
I wear a mask because I’m immunocompromised due to Liver Transplant

I was seated in the front row, and I was talking with the lady seated next to me about hepatitis C. My shirt was a conversation starter, earlier I’d explained the prevalence and the cure to a few others who’d asked. She was explaining to me that her mother had it and we spoke about the cure, to which she seemed surprised, but often people are unaware of it, so I went into more detail. I explained that there’s a lot of ignorance around the virus, and the cure, largely due to stigma about even talking about.

“Excuse me sir, I’m going to need to talk to you.” The flight attendant interrupted. He and another attendant pulled me off the plane and onto the boarding ramp. he began ” A passenger expressed concern about your shirt, could you explain?” Without thinking I responded I’m a Hepatitis C advocate, I just came from a conference. Noting their faces unchanging waiting for more information I continued. There’s a lot of ignorance about the disease, and a large part of that is due to stigma, so I’m not surprised someone is concerned. They asked if it was an issue.

And I responded, unsure if they meant an issue for me or for them, as the situation implied they took issue. “It’s a blood borne pathogen, it’s blood to blood only,” I continued, still waiting for a response I explained that I was cured last year, but regardless this shirt is my status, and it’s not an issue. I’d had enough of their concerned faces, and turned around and went back to my seat.

I was far too aware of the level of control airlines have over passengers, and now being a transplant patient I only had so much medication with me, so being stuck there was a concern.

Full Story On HepMag

New things to come.

I’m going to do something positively terrifying.

Come March 14th not only will I know what’s going on with the Zepatier Treatment

But across all of my online dating profiles I will openly disclose that I have HCV along with pertinent information.

My virtual identities which I once held separate I’m going to link.
I don’t really know what will happen.
I don’t know how people will take it.
But we’ve all got our shit.

In addition to doing the ongoing dating series…

Next month The Five will be available to read in it’s first iteration in six parts. IMG_20160217_171707
It is an introspective look at the previous treatments’ failure and how to fail best.
(like Astronaut Chris Hadfield says “Visual Failings, not Defeat” )

May is National Hepatitis Awareness Month!

As May is coming up, I wanted to highlight the amazing changes that have happened in the past year when it comes to treatments and the bright future there is for those with Hepatitis C.

Of the daunting challenges to overcome, awareness can help address one of the largest ones.
The fact that the majority of those who have the illness will go unaware until they begin showing symptoms and by then permanent damage can already be done. 

Get Tested today!

TestingforHepC


IMGUR link for the infograph

Google “googling the illness”

Last week I tried to upload a video, it didn’t work properly but here’s the gist of the first half in better detail:

Google has added a rather nifty little feature.

It now summarizes ailments and diseases using aggregated data.

It’s easy to understand why this can be a terrible idea, but considering 1 in 20 Google searches are medical related it’s not hard to understand why it was done.

For those of you not hip web-lingo, it’s a scraper. Scrapers copy content and aggregate data onto one platform, typically a website, however recently apps have become fantastic at using scrapers.

Let’s look at the 4/12/15 Google  high-quality image medical data for Hep C.

This has recently changed from sexual contact to spreads easily.

I can see a glaring issue without having to go much further. Under contagious its top listing says that it’s Mainly spread by sexual contact.

The main methods of transmission are in order: Intravenous Drug Use, Transfusion (in the USA prior to 1992, in Canada prior to 1990), and needle stick/Health care worker exposure.

This is the principle problem with scrapers. Even it grabs the data properly, Sexual intercourse using has the longest section when describing the transmission methods…why?

Because there is a lot of controversy around it. The most recent poll was done by the CDC in 2010, and the questions that were asked, were fairly direct. Even in other polls that have come out through the years, this issue always comes up:  The biggest section of the Hep C population consists of Intravenous, mostly illegal, drug users. It’s far less damning for someone to claim to have received it sexually than via drug use.

When studies have polled HCV patients directly, usually through a doctor, they find slightly better information, which is why we have such an interesting spread of information. They also have been examining the virus, to see how likely these claims could be. E.G. looking at the life of the virus outside the body, looking at how the HCV RNA in sperm is typically inert or non-existent. (it’s around 9% of the HCV infected male population that have it, and less than 20% of that 9% excrete enough for it to potentially be transferred) The less likely means of transmission as in order: Vertical Transfer: Mother to Child (it does not go father to child), Personal items (nail clippers, razors, etc..), Sexually can even further be broken down: Rough unprotected anal intercourse, rough unprotected vaginal intercourse, unprotected intercourse/rough intercourse. It is not simply by means of sexual contact, which is a much larger category.

Okay Google, now…let’s talk about how we correct this problem. There is a feedback button at the bottom for correcting mistakes.

But this is also terrible, because most of the time people who Google ailments and diseases are usually anything but experts. So the idea that an under/uninformed user is going to be able to use that feature is silly, at best. In fact, many who use this method, may reinforce what Google says by repeating their new-found knowledge to others who are under/uninformed.

The feedback method is used a lot by Wikipedia. And the correction method works for Wikipedia because often times authors/experts will correct the information using verifiable credentials.
But even still, Wikipedia’s accuracy is at the mercy of its users.

The other issue with this new presentation of information is the listing of sources. Google is borrowing the credibility of the top websites in its scraper. The Sources listing as “Mayo Clinic and others” uses a recognizable name to help a user view this information as accurate. Additionally there is no list, of what these sources area.

Ethically it should list sources, as “Sources” and not disclose any of them until the user checks the sources themselves.

While yes Google consulted with the Mayo Clinic, clearly not for that medical data, which is what makes this tool so useful. Not only would it allow Google a better idea as to how many of their users trust this quick medical information, but it would also allow Google to randomize the presentation of sources to encourage users to verify the medical information.

Why? Because if you see Mayo Clinic, 9GAG, WebMD and Top Ten medical facts about DISEASE YOU GOOGLED listed as sources, chances are you’ll look at the info with more scrutiny.
Since then, Google has changed the main transmission method  to “Spreads Easily.” Which, as a blood-born pathogen is far from the truth. Please Google Hep C, and help correct it. Also if you’re a medical professional, please help correct the information you know to be false. And please ask your Doc/Specialist(s) to help correct false information as well.

Please follow this guide

While there is a lot of medical information on the web at your fingertips, always tread with caution. Incorrect information, or half-cocked information should never be used for diagnosis. The internet can provide you with the questions you need to ask, the help of communities, and other resources to get help.

Misinformation for medical information is potentially deadly, and after all the internet is mostly a series of tubes.

It Takes Two

While missing a dose Harvoni had no ill side effects, I can’t say the same for accidentally doubling up. Last weekend I did just that, the side effects were quick and unpleasant. I was unsure as to whether or not I had taken my pill, and while I know that “if unsure if you’ve taken your RX, don’t” is the general rule, I was mostly certain I hadn’t taken it. So an hour following the first pill, I took my second. I didn’t notice how thirsty I was until the pain began two hours in. I’m prepared for hepatic encephalopathy, ascities, jaundice, fatigue, etc… but what I can find few solutions for is the arthritic mimicry. Joint pain from time to time is one thing, but this infects every subtle movement jarringly pushing me to a slightly less uncomfortable position.

I do not have Rheumatoid Arthritis. However, from time to time I notice the symptoms of HCV mimicking it. It’s more than just standard joint pain, and my heart goes out to those who find themselves suffer from both.

It’s not uncommon for the symptoms to express without other signs of HCV infection. I am lucky in the sense that i find myself with many of it’s symptoms, because without such challenges i may not have known of my affliction as early as i did.

Every joint in my body ached, it hurt to open a door handle. I hadn’t felt this kind of exhaustion and pain in some time. I had one solution in front of me, to wait and see. And so I slept the majority of the next few days. Drinking as much water as I could in hopes to combat my skin’s growing inelasticity. As the days passed, the extra pill’s effects began wearing off.
The RA mimicry that popped up has yet to fully fade, but at this point it’s just the state of my liver.
Nothing happened last week, which in a sense made it an exciting week.
Not because the extra pill had less ill effect than I had anticipated, but rather because of a phone call.
The week prior I had my blood drawn. I had hope that my numbers would show progress. The last few tests had shown overall that my liver function was improving, my numbers were returning to a normal state. And by normal, I mean like everybody else normal. I was constantly surprised at how well my liver function tests were going.

So now we’re here. Rather, we’re back here.

Six months ago. I was able to zero out for the first time, however when the second draw came, there was a discrepancy between the tests. Within a month of finishing my 12 week Sovaldi Olysio treatment I found myself with rapidly elevating bilirubin. Which was only further complicated by a C. Diff infection from some diner food I’d eaten for lunch. A week’s long stay and a potential transfer to the hospital for transplant were real possibilities.

I say this with an uneasy stomach spinning from caution, hope, fear, and unbridled glee.

My viral load is undetectable.

It’s unclear as to exactly when it happened, but it has been the case for at least a week. And with about 10 more weeks to go, things are looking well.
I will have several more tests, one at treatment’s end, another a month following, and yet another in August when I will hopefully reach SVR12.

It takes two. End treatment and SVR 12, Two more tests will show me that I have done, what has taken me ten years, to do. I began my first tests for treatment when I was nineteen, and just this month I turned twenty nine.

So far, nothing has been the best birthday gift I’ve received.