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Changing COVID-19 metrics and mask mandates leaves those at-risk wondering who cares

Guitarist Jamie Harrison in the Bosque, Albuquerque.
Guitarist Jamie Harrison in the Bosque, Albuquerque.

Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham repealed the state’s indoor mask mandate in mid-February. In mid-March, the New Mexico Department of Healthstopped providing daily COVID19 updates by count, following a CDC change. And in mid-April, a federal judge struck down a national public transport mask mandate. For one “at risk” musician, it all adds up to an uncertain future in a changing landscape of mandates and metrics.

Jamie Harrison didn’t cheer like passengers on JetBlue and Delta when a federal judge struck down a national public transport mask mandate last month. On Delta, cheers followed this announcement, "If you choose to, you may remove your mask." A flight attendant on Jet Blue sang, "Throw away your mask in the blue bag. Throw away your mask."

"I'm a big dude … I'm six foot three … So if there's three seats in a row, … I'm up close to somebody. So if no one's wearing masks that's not a good situation," said Harrison.

Harrison never expected to be a person considered medically vulnerable.

"Then in 2019, I had a virus that caused pericarditis, an inflammation of pericardium of the heart, he said. "It puts me in a high risk category for COVID-19 comorbidities."

The military veteran and Albuquerque musician has toured extensively and has several songs up for the New Mexico Music Awards. He’s not used to staying at home.

"Before the diagnosis, I would be playing with multiple bands, getting in tour buses, pickup trucks, you know, driving my own truck and go go go, just kind of getting my piece of the pie," Harrison remembered.

All that changed with COVID-19. His doctor made it clear his new condition put him at high-risk. Heart Disease and COVID- 19 are a bad mix.

"He didn't even want me getting a regular cold, if I could avoid it," Harrison said. "With the heart deal, breathing would really be impacted if I had a lung issue. People who had existing heart conditions, even mild cases of COVID were hitting them hard and a lot of them weren't making it."

The New Mexico Department of Health estimates a staggering number of people in the state are “at risk for getting very sick from Covid-19” because of health conditions– more than 1 in 3, or 742,125.

Beatrice Adler-Bolton describes herself as "a blind and low vision, chronically ill and disabled person who studies disability and the political economy of health in the United States." Adler-Bolton is co-author of Health Communism and co-host of the Death Panel Podcast. She says leaving public health policy in the hands of individual choice leaves those at-risk fending for themselves.

"I think those who are at-risk right now are incredibly frustrated, because the messaging is ... all geared towards the idea that the dominant bulk of the population has no risk and has no proximity to people who are at-risk," she said.

But, she added, that’s not how viruses and pandemics work.

"No matter how much you make a rhetorical assertion that infections of COVID are inconsequential to the general response or experience of COVID, then you will prolong the pandemic, because infections are what drive the durability of the pandemic in the first place," said Adler-Bolton.

That lack of understanding of risk hampers musicians like Jamie Harrison who must negotiate gigs in a way that helps him stay safe. He has to be his own advocate and diplomat. The rollback of public health mandates essentially “outs” those “at-risk” who take COVID-19 precautions.

"With COVID, it's like to get people to just calm down on their rhetoric, I basically had to say, 'This isn't because CNN told me to do it. This is because a doctor, a real doctor is telling me this is what's best for me, given all my health stuff.'”

Harrison knows that people are upset when he asks venues about their precautions as public health protections end.
"I would ask 20 questions . If it's not a venue I'm familiar with, 'Okay, are we inside? Are we outside? Are there doors open? Who's on the gig was the big one.' Even if I get to a club, 'Where can I be, you know, if there's a door that's open, can I set up closer to that and further away from the guy who I know is on a whole different wavelength about the whole thing?'"

Adler-Bolton said at-risk people like herself and Harrison should be at the center of policy.

"Meaning that we must look to those who have the most complex needs and build our community protections around those needs, not around the needs of the least vulnerable like we're doing now."

Harrison would love nothing more than to play guitar, for people, safely, as he did with the Curio Cowboys in 2019, before the pandemic. How that happens is uncertain.

Music used by permission under the piece: 1. Poor Wayfaring Stranger, Nominated Best Vocal Performance New Mexico Music Awards. 2. Russian Lullaby (I. Berlin) live in 2019 by Curio Cowboys, J. Harrison on Guitar.

A small selection of Jamie’s Music:
All of the love songs- Nominated in the upcoming New Mexico Music Awards for Adult Pop/ Adult Contemporary and Best Vocal Performance categories
Novocaine- Nominated in New Mexico Music Awards for Engineering and Mastering categories
Devil’s Kiss- Winner New Mexico Music Awards Modern Rock
Purple RainNominated Best Cover New Mexico Music Awards

Jered Ebenreck has volunteered in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Jered did Public Health reporting and analysis for KUNM from 2021-2022, while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer's.
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