CDC and state officials warn residents with a weakened immune system to take precautions after vaccinated Henry County teacher dies of COVID-19.

COLLINSVILLE-Amy Ferguson had a huge heart. That’s how friends and co-workers remembered the Henry County math teacher on Monday. They remembered jokes she told, stories shared and ways she helped students. 

“She was someone people felt comfortable talking to,” said Amy’s co-worker, Fieldale-Collinsville Middle School teacher Anna Carlton. “She would do anything to help people.” 

Ferguson taught 32 years in Henry County, covering just about every subject. Former students shared how she helped them truly understand math and get ready for high school. Parents talked about how their kids respected her, because she let them know what she expected. 

Some kids saw her as soon as they got off the bus in the mornings, making sure they all got to class ok. For others, she was one of the teachers who waited with them after school, staying until their mom or dad could come pick them up. At the school where she taught, in the Henry County town and at Checkered Pig BBQ, at a fundraiser for her family, people reflected and remembered her impact. They all shared their thoughts and then said goodbye. 

Despite being fully vaccinated, Amy got infected with COVID-19 in late June. She passed away July 9. The problem, doctors and CDC officials said, is one thousands of other Virginians are dealing with: the vaccine doesn’t fully protect anyone who’s immuno-compromised. 

What Does Weakened Immune System Change

Medicine she took for rheumatoid arthritis compromised Amy’s immune system. The same problem occurs, however, for any condition or medicine that affects your immune system. 

“If you have a condition or are taking medications that weaken your immune system, you may not be fully protected, even if you are fully vaccinated.” Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directed Dogwood to that statement on their website, when we reached out.

If a doctor says you’re immunocompromised, that means something weakened your immune system. As the CDC mentions above, that might be due to the medicine you’re taking. That can be anything from drugs to help with an organ transplant to something designed to fight arthritis. It also could be due to a fight your body’s already in against something like AIDS or diabetes. 

But why does that affect how your body responds to COVID-19 after being vaccinated? When you get the vaccine, it’s meant to act like a teacher. It helps the body’s immune system learn how to build antibodies that will fight against the virus. But the strength of your immune system determines how strong those antibodies are.

The stronger the immune system, the stronger the response. Imagine your immune system as a house, designed to block rain, wind and any storm debris from getting inside. A strong immune system is like a brick house with oak doors and shielded windows. A weaker immune system has cracks in the walls, with water leaking in through the roof. 

A study by the American Medical Association’s journal JAMA backs that up. The study found only 15% of immuno-compromised people who took the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine had antibodies after the first dose. Only 54% had antibodies after the second dose. 

What Does That Mean? 

That means protecting yourself against COVID-19 isn’t as simple as getting the vaccine. For anyone whose immune system is compromised, it’s time to put the mask back on. 

“Those with weakened immune systems should continue wearing a mask correctly, stay at least six feet from others outside of your household, avoid crowds, poorly ventilated spaces and wash your hands often,” said Brookie Crawford. She serves as public information officer for the Virginia Department of Health’s Central Region.

The big thing, Crawford said, is that immuno-compromised residents need to talk to their doctor about what’s needed. Before giving up your mask or heading to a crowded concert, have a conversation about how the medicine you’re taking or your health condition could change how effective the vaccine is. And if the answer is “we don’t know yet,” Crawford suggests that you err on the side of caution. 

As more studies finish, we’ll have a better understanding of how the vaccine needs to be adjusted or strengthened for those with weakened immune systems. One concept being examined at Johns Hopkins Medical Center is a booster shot. The idea is that immuno-compromised people just need more of the vaccine. Those clinical tests haven’t been finished yet, so there’s not enough data to say if that’ll work. 

One idea that everyone agrees is a bad one involves stopping your current medicine. That won’t help at all, CDC officials and Virginia Health officials say. The reason is that your immune system would still be weak. The roof on the house didn’t suddenly get patched. All that does is create two problems, rather than one.   

The one thing proven to work so far is the mask and social distancing system, the CDC says. Stay six feet from other people and avoid crowds.

Call Your Doctor

Nationally, January 6 saw the highest reported number of COVID-related hospitalizations at 132,474. As of March 7 that number dropped to 40,199 cases. 

As of July 12, a total of 222 patients were in Virginia hospitals with COVID-19 complications or pending test results. Over the course of the pandemic, 57,388 individuals with COVID-19 became hospitalized within and later discharged from a Virginia hospital. While all the COVID-19 numbers across Virginia are dropping, that doesn’t mean people should ignore any symptoms. Especially if you have a compromised immune system, what seems like a cold may require medical treatment. We’ve already seen some situations lead to myocarditis.

“If someone with a compromised immune system contracts COVID, they should contact their healthcare provider immediately,” Crawford said.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at brian@vadogwood.com.

Amie Knowles is a staff reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com.