COVID-19: Is It Safe for Me to Go Back to School?

Editor’s Note: The Society continues to be there for people affected by MS. The recommendations referred below reflect the information available during the time of this blog’s publication.

For the latest information and resources related to COVID-19, please visit the Society’s Coronavirus Resources Page. Find additional resources through our Ask an MS Expert webinar series.

​As the steep incline in the number of U.S. COVID-19 cases wallpapers cable news, officials at the big city-university where I teach are, like many higher ed administrators, trying to figure out how to safely resume in-person instruction in the fall.

Participating in Zoom faculty meetings, I’ve heard plans about how socially-distanced and face-mask-clad faculty, staff and students could make this work, as officials create COVID-19 testing guidelines.

I initially worried that my relapsing remitting MS – combined with the Tecfidera I’ve been taking since 2014 – would put me at higher risk of getting ill and/or possibly succumbing to the coronavirus. Like many people, I’ve spent the bulk of March through June holed up in my house, fearful of encountering COVID-19. I mostly hung out in the back yard or walked my dogs Max and Tedy around the neighborhood while dutifully wearing my face mask and keeping a healthy distance from others.

Before COVID-19, I was already super-careful about illness while working on a campus with tens of thousands of students and employees, seeing that, since being diagnosed with MS, every viral or bacterial infection I’ve contracted seemed to last longer and be more severe than what my husband or kids experienced. During flu season, or when nasty stomach bugs were making the rounds at school, I routinely avoided touching door handles and railings, and liberally applied hand sanitizer.

Now that a global pandemic has killed more than 126,000 people nationally and over a half-million globally, I was leery about returning to campus, especially given my presumed vulnerability. The worries of a potential fall surge in COVID-19 infections unnerved me as well.

So I reached out to my neurologist to get his advice about whether I should plan on gathering cloth masks, hand sanitizers and gloves in order to teach college in the age of the coronavirus, or if I’d need a letter requesting a medical exemption so I can teach virtually from my home.
Online information I found in June seemed potentially encouraging.

On the National MS Society’s COVID-19 disease modifying therapies (DMTs) web page, I looked to see if there was any mention of whether my medication left me more vulnerable. In their estimation, it didn’t:

“The limited evidence available suggests that people with MS taking dimethyl fumarate (Tecfidera) … do not have an increased risk of more severe COVID-19 symptoms or death.”

Meanwhile, the MS International Federation’s website – which included the caveat that “there is currently limited evidence on how COVID-19 affects people with” MS – offered essentially the same information as the Society.

My neurologist’s email echoed what the two MS groups reported.

“So far, around the world there have been 500+ MS patients who also got COVID-19,” he wrote in late-June. “They virtually all did well (meaning similar to the general population, very few hospitalized or needing supplemental oxygen).”

“[T]he MS treatments appear to have no effect on COVID-19 outcomes,” he continued. “The only medications that may increase risk are really broadly effective immunosuppressant medicines (chemotherapy, methotrexate, Cytoxan, and possibly steroids).”

I don’t take any of those medications, at least not at the moment.

“With that information,” the doctor continued, “I think I can predict that you will do well. You do not seem to have really any risk factors that would put you at higher risk.”

This was as surprising as it was freeing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to suddenly dart out into crowds and suck in deep, uncovered breaths. I’m still terrified of this lethal virus, but I can now be as terrified as anybody else is. I am, as far as my doctor is concerned, NOT at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. If things change, I’m sure he’ll let me know.

As long as I wash my hands, wear a face mask and stay physically distanced from others on campus, I will “just” have to worry about my omnipresent MS symptoms that follow me wherever I go, symptoms like fatigue, heat sensitivity (meaning I have to plan for teaching in hot rooms and being able to successfully traverse campus when it’s warm), and difficulty climbing stairs (a challenge when making one’s way around academic buildings).

It remains daunting to contemplate venturing onto a campus while a pandemic is still spreading, particularly since I have an autoimmune disease, but COVID-19, medical experts say, is a monster that’s stalking everybody. Provided that the coronavirus cases in my state of Massachusetts continue to decline, I’ll plan to teach in-person while keeping as vigilant about protecting my MS-impaired energy level, as I am about wearing my face mask.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is proud to be a source of information on multiple sclerosis related topics. Unless otherwise indicated, the information provided is based on professional advice, published experience, and expert opinion. However, the information does not constitute medical or legal advice. For specific medical advice, consult a qualified physician. For specific legal advice, consult a qualified attorney.
Tags COVID-19, Employment & Education, Treatment      1 Appreciate this

Meredith O’Brien

Meredith O’Brien is a Boston area writer and journalism lecturer. She is a die-hard Red Sox fan who has three college-aged kids and two noisy dogs. Her fourth book is “Uncomfortably Numb: A Memoir,” about her MS experience. Follow her on Twitter or visit her website.