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For high-risk Alaskans navigating the pandemic, there’s no return to normal life in sight

Eleven-year-old Aubrey Virgin’s medical condition puts her at higher risk if she were infected by COVID-19. Aubrey, left, sits with her mother, Shannon Virgin at the family’s Palmer home on June 26, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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Aubrey Virgin, 11, loves to read, run, play soccer and hunt.

“If you looked at her, you would have no idea she’s high-risk or has preexisting medical conditions,” said her mom, Shannon Virgin, from Palmer.

When Aubrey was very young, she was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease — a relatively rare illness that causes body rashes, high fever and swelling — along with asthma, juvenile arthritis and an autoinflammatory disease.

Virgin worries that if her daughter does get sick with COVID-19, “it will knock her down a lot more than it does the average person.”

It has been just over a month since Alaska has reopened, and for many, life has slowly started to return to a pre-pandemic state. But for Aubrey, her family and others in a high-risk category, a return to normal life still feels far away.

“I honestly don’t see my life ever going back to normal,” Virgin said. “I think this was eye-opening enough for me that we are always going to be a little bit more cautious.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that while everyone is at risk of getting COVID-19, some people are more likely than others to become severely ill. People in this category who contract the virus — older adults and those with underlying medical conditions — are more likely to require hospitalization, intensive care or a ventilator to help them breathe. And a recently released federal health report found that COVID-19 patients with underlying medical conditions were 12 times as likely to die as otherwise healthy people infected with the virus.

At a recent hearing, Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, explained that more Alaskans fall into this category than many realize.

“It’s not a small group: It’s at least a third of us,” she said, citing recent state-by-state data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Because there’s a higher risk that her daughter could react severely to COVID-19, Virgin said that since the beginning of the pandemic, she and her family have been “on high alert.”

They don’t go out as much. They haven’t been around anybody except for family, and recently, a couple of close friends they trust. They’re considering homeschooling Aubrey in the fall.

It hasn’t always been easy.

“Aubrey has come home a few times very upset and almost in tears over the fact that some people are not taking it seriously,” Virgin said. “She has actually asked me why her life isn’t valuable enough for other people to just wear a mask when they’re at the grocery store.”

For Virgin, the worst part is the comments she reads online.

“Like, ‘The only people who are dying are the ones that are high-risk or have pre-existing medical conditions.' And they seem to think that people in that category are already on their deathbed at that point. And that’s just not the case.”

Still, Virgin said, in many ways her family is lucky. She’s happy to be able to stay home with Aubrey. And recently, Aubrey’s doctors approved her going back to playing soccer.

“She’s only allowed to play with her feet and she has to wear a mask,” Virgin said. “And she does. She’s the only kid out there on the soccer field wearing a mask, and she gets it done.”

For other parents with high-risk children, explaining why life has profoundly changed in the time of COVID-19 has been a challenge.

Karolina Knapp, 11, and her brother Johnnie Knapp, 4, sit on a rock next to a stream near their house on Saturday, June 27, in South Anchorage. Both children have health issues that make them especially vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Johnnie Knapp, 4, from Anchorage, was born with a hole in his heart. His sister Karolina is 11, and is also high-risk. Two years ago she was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, which occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough hormones. She was diagnosed after she went into cardiac arrest and had to spend more than a month in the hospital.

Their parents, Twana and Johnnie Knapp, said the last few months have been tough.

“It feels like it’s been a year, but it’s only been three months,” father Johnnie Knapp said.

They’ve passed the time with family movie nights, crafts and games. Johnnie Knapp has been able to work from home, and Twana Knapp does grocery pickups twice a week. Otherwise, they’ve stayed hunkered down, visiting with friends over video chat only.

Still, “every day, Karolina’s like, ‘I want to see my friends. I want to see Grandma.' It’s very difficult for her to be home all the time,” said Johnnie Knapp.

The Knapps are even more worried about their 4-year-old.

“Karolina can talk to her friends on video,” Twana Knapp said, “but Johnnie doesn’t understand why he can’t see his friend who lives down the street.”

“My biggest concern long-term is how damaging that’s going to be for his social skills and how he’s going to catch up after this is over,” Johnnie Knapp said of his son. It’s important for toddlers to learn how to play and share toys with children their own age, he said.

The couple says that the future remains uncertain. Twana Knapp said she is dreading the possibility of having to spend the next few holidays and birthdays without their extended families.

“But until people really start wearing masks and taking care of each other and looking out for each other,” she said, “I don’t feel that I can comfortably leave my home.”

Other high-risk Alaskans have found safety in leaving their home — as long as they are able to socially distance.

Stay-at-home dad and part-time bike mechanic Roger Parr has diabetes, a condition the CDC says may put him at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. He said that lately, riding his bike dozens of miles a day is one thing that has helped keep him sane.

Roger Parr poses for a photo outside his West Anchorage home on Saturday, June 27, 2020. Parr is diabetic and bikes to stay healthy, and he described feeling relieved after the Municipality of Anchorage ordered mask wearing in indoor public spaces. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“I found that the way for me to stay healthy, to keep my diabetes under control, and to fight this was by doing the one thing I had control over, which was my fitness,” Parr said.

What has been hardest for him is that his friends don’t always understand why he’s so careful about always mask-wearing and social distancing — and he often feels like he’s missing out.

“I turned down a lot of offers to go have fun. And I got a lot of people poking fun at me for taking it seriously,” he said.

State health guidelines advise Alaskans to maintain 6 feet of distance from people not in their household and to wear face coverings to prevent the spread of the virus. But in practice, these guidelines can sometimes be tricky to follow perfectly, Parr said.

The other day, for example, he agreed to give a friend a ride.

“And I show up wearing my mask but you know, I just felt silly,” he said. “So I ended up taking it off. I was sick of getting made fun of, and I had started thinking, you know, maybe we’re going to get over this.”

But once Parr saw news accounts over the next few days that detailed spikes in coronavirus cases in Alaska, he said he regretted that decision.

“I felt like I put myself at risk just because I wanted life to go back to normal.”

Parr said the new mandate signed by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, which requires face coverings in most indoor spaces open to public in the municipality, was “the best thing that happened all week.”

“I really think the big thing is, with all of this, it’s only going to get better if we all work together,” he said.

Parr said he feels cautiously optimistic about the future.

“I want to say that when this all goes away, that it will go back to normal,” he said. “But I guess it depends on how many friends I lose, how many people get sick, and how bad this gets.”

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