Liver transplant recipient watching coronavirus outbreak carefully

Di'jon Thomas has become the queen of clean hands lately.

"I definitely keep hand sanitizer with me all the time, in my purse, in my car, in my house, everywhere," she says.

Di'jon Thomas, a liver transplant recipient, takes her immunosuppressant medication. It keeps her immune system from rejecting her new liver. But, it also makes it more difficult for her to fight off a virus like COVID-19.

The Acworth, Georgia 26-year-old, who recently underwent a liver transplant, with her 23-year old brother Deontae as her living donor, knows she cannot afford to get sick right now.

"My immune system is very, very, very weak," Thomas says.  "I take medicine every day, religiously, to protect my immune system."

That medication suppresses Thomas' immune system to keep her body from rejecting her new liver, but also  

makes it harder for her to fight off infections.

"Even if I get the flu, or any kind of cough, they want me in the hospital," she says.  "They're going to want to monitor me and make sure that my liver is going to be okay."

And, now, COVID-19 has arrived in the U.S.

Georgia has two confirmed cases.

"It's definitely made me very nervous, especially my mom," she says.  "My whole family, they always tell me to be careful, because they know how easily I can get sick."

Experts say about 80% of people infected with this new coronavirus will have mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. 

But about 20% become severely ill.

Di'jon Thomas, a liver transplant recipient, takes her immunosuppressant medication. It keeps her immune system from rejecting her new liver. But, it also makes it more difficult for her to fight off a virus like COVID-19.

And a new Chinese study involving 1,590 of the first patients infected, found those with an underlying illness, were much more likely to become severely ill, than those who didn't a chronic health issue.

They were more likely to require intensive care, and respiratory support.

Having more than one underlying health issue raise their risk even higher.

WebMD Medical Editor Dr. Hansa Bhargava says U.S. hospitals are preparing for an influx of people at higher risk of complications.

 "I think what they're concerned about is the people who could get really sick," Bhargava says.  "And, that's the elderly, immunocompromised, people on chemotherapy, people having transplants, people having underlying lung disease."

Bhargava encourages people with chronic health issues, and cancer and transplant patients, to talk to their physicians about what precautions to take right now.

Di'jon Thomas, who was already on guard because of flu season, now rarely leaves home, and is constantly cleaning her hands.

"Honestly, I'd probably say (I wash my hands) 25 times, 30 times," she says.  "I wash my hands, I sanitize my hands a lot. I do."

She also wears a hospital mask anytime she has to go out of her home. 

Dr. Bhargava cautions most paper hospital masks don't offer much protection against COVID-19, and the type of mask you're wearing matters.

"People who are immunocompromised: transplant patient, cancer patients, if they are concerned about going outside, they should talk to their doctor, and ask specifically what kind of mask might help them," she says.  "The majoring of masks that are out there will not help people. So, they have to be specific N95 type masks that can actually help."

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