Weighing risk to volunteer at food bank
April 25, 2020 5:04 PM   Subscribe

My wife wants to volunteer at the food bank. But I have some concern about her having higher risk factors. I am not sure whether even I should go, because I could bring the virus back to her. We would both use a face mask and gloves and take appropriate precautions. My wife does not see this as a problem.

She had pneumonia the first week of February. She has COPD and asthma. But asthma is apparently not a risk factor, after all. She is 60 and I am 57.

I helped at the food bank a week ago. Most people, but not everyone, wore masks. The staff encourages people to be 6 feet apart, but they don’t enforce it. And keeping that distance is often impractical during the work.

Our county has had 33 deaths and 670 cases out of 17,615 people tested.

She says in a few weeks, she will have to go back to work and be exposed to a large variety of people there. She would rather do something worthwhile while she has the time, and feel like she is giving back to the community. She also does not feel that this should be my call. She feels like this should be her decision.

So, should either or both of us help at the food bank?
posted by NotLost to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: She also had a pulmonary embolism and other blood clots four years ago.
posted by NotLost at 5:17 PM on April 25, 2020

Best answer: I think it would be a good idea to look harder at ways to give back to the community. I agree that her risk factors are high. The fact that she had pneumonia seems like a non-starter. Did she enjoy that experience? Why expose yourself to the risk of getting something like that (or worse) again.

She could lobby for expansion of SNAP benefits. She could ask about helping with meals on wheels. A friend of mine just did a thing where he made a dozen sandwiches for a group that was doing outreach to homeless people. He just did it with his own supplies and then the folks who were organizing did a porch pickup. It's important for people to vote, vote, vote in the upcoming election. Can she involve herself with that? The food pantry, I believe, has plenty of volunteers. You could call them yourself and see if it's even possible for her to volunteer there. Maybe it's not possible. Surely they'll ask about risk factors and decline help from those who would put themselves in danger. I know our local has done that.
posted by amanda at 5:25 PM on April 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

I feel like this is a personal choice when it comes to risk. I mean, your wife is an adult that can choose her own risk-versus-benefit. I can see her wanting to as well as your not wanting to; you both have valid reasons for your preferences. If you are worried about your getting ill or her infecting others, that'd be of greater concern to me. I am sure others would feel differently and will made very good points. There are many ways to give back, even at a food bank, and I'd work on exploring them all.
posted by smorgasbord at 5:27 PM on April 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

She feels like this should be her decision.

Of course she does and of course it should be.

If it's true that she's going to have to go back to work in a few weeks and will be exposed to a large variety of people there, then a few times of working at the food bank before then may be insignificant compared to the other risks she'll be facing.

How much does the food bank need volunteers? If neither of you volunteers there, are there other people they can call on? If so, it makes sense for the two of you to think about whether there are other ways you can give back that will make even more of a difference, especially given her risk factors. But if she feels okay about going back to work soon it doesn't seem crazy for her to also feel okay about going to the food bank.
posted by Redstart at 5:41 PM on April 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Depending on the food bank and how it's set up, she might be able to do more warehouse/restocking/administrative work than actual interface with other people. If those positions are available, the people running the bank might be glad to give her the choice of positions to volunteer for. That won't eliminate all risk, but it would mitigate it. Since you already did a shift there, you'll have a better idea of what's available.

NB: I don't know your food bank. I am possibly at-risk due to long-dormant asthma, and am currently doing shifts at three different food banks, all of which were willing to accommodate my "lower-contact" preferences.
posted by Gorgik at 6:01 PM on April 25, 2020

Best answer: Ultimately of course it's her decision because she's an adult. But is she aware that having COPD is associated with significantly worse outcomes if she were to get Covid-19? Here is a (peer reviewed!!!) meta-analysis about this: abstract / full pdf

To me COPD would even be a reason to closely examine whether to go back to work. From what I have seen on unemployment information pages, people who are particularly high-risk and have been directed by their doctor to isolate (has she talked to her doctor?) can potentially continue to get unemployment after their job re-opens.

If I were living with someone who had COPD I would not volunteer, but that seems kind of moot if she chooses to volunteer, herself.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:08 PM on April 25, 2020 [11 favorites]

You can only decide for yourselves. Having said that, I don't think either of you should go.
posted by kate4914 at 6:27 PM on April 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: She says in a few weeks, she will have to go back to work and be exposed to a large variety of people there.

I've been trying to address what appears to be a general misunderstanding about how protections for employees appear to work under the expanded unemployment insurance programs, including in this comment, which encourages workers, and especially anyone with a higher-risk medical condition, to seek free legal advice about their options, which may include eligibility for unemployment insurance. I am not able to provide legal advice about what to do, but I am hoping that people will not make assumptions that could put them at unnecessary risk when there are legal and financial protections that may exist to help them continue to stay at home.

Recently, both Oregon and New York have made statements about how staying at home when possible is a crucial way to support the community, and I can understand how it could feel like an abstract and tangential way to help. But this pandemic has a way of becoming specific and real very quickly, although it does seem harder to calculate that future possibility until one is actually waiting on a close family member or friend's or one's own test result, especially when the ongoing lack of adequate testing (Politico, Apr. 25, 2020) may create a false sense of reassurance.
posted by katra at 6:50 PM on April 25, 2020 [7 favorites]

If she goes and you do not, do you have concerns about her bringing the virus back to your home and infecting you?

This is not solely your wife’s decision. It’s a household decision. On a practical level one or other of your can make it unilaterally in as much as neither of you can bar the door and prevent the other person from volunteering. However, it’s not possible to martyr oneself to coronavirus by accepting an increased level of risk to oneself. Taking such risks automatically increases the risk level for anyone whom one comes into contact with. If you point that if she was volunteering, you weren’t and you wanted to minimise your own risk of getting infected you would have to isolate yourself from her has she thought about it this way?

The point about her going back to work is not all that relevant to my mind in part because if restrictions have not been lifted already who knows where we will be a few weeks from now? If she has COPD her employer may prefer that she take additional precautions for example, depends on lots of factors.
posted by Erinaceus europaeus at 6:59 PM on April 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I helped at the food bank a week ago. Most people, but not everyone, wore masks. The staff encourages people to be 6 feet apart, but they don’t enforce it. And keeping that distance is often impractical during the work.

I would not volunteer somewhere that does not put my safety first—even more so with significant risk factors—and from what you've described, they're not achieving that, at least not based on your first-hand experience last week. They could mandate face coverings and adjust processes and spaces so that everyone can stay a suitable distance apart from others in most situations (my local food bank has significantly reduced the number of volunteers they take per shift to help achieve this). They can ensure surfaces are cleaned regularly and require that everyone the 6' apart rule seriously. Some food banks have shifted some volunteer projects outside where that's possible for extra safety.

I'm sure the food bank is slammed and struggling to deal with all of this, but I would not be comfortable volunteering somewhere that is not following the minimum precautions necessary to reduce the risk that is within their control.
posted by zachlipton at 7:34 PM on April 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I understand the urge to help out, but she is high-risk in several ways. One of the latest complications that has come up is increased risk of blood clots and strokes in patients, including very young and healthy people in their 30s or 40s. She has already experienced clots leading to embolism.

Washington Post (Paywall, but may be open now as a covid-19 story)
One doctor replied that one of his patients had a strange blood problem. Despite being put on anticoagulants, the patient was still developing clots. A second said she’d seen something similar. And a third. Soon, every person on the text chat had reported the same thing. “That’s when we knew we had a huge problem,” said Coopersmith, a critical-care surgeon. As he checked with his counterparts at other medical centers, he became increasingly alarmed: “It was in as many as 20, 30 or 40 percent of their patients.” ...

Autopsies have shown some people’s lungs fill with hundreds of microclots. Errant blood clots of a larger size can break off and travel to the brain or heart, causing a stroke or heart attack. On Saturday, Broadway actor Nick Cordero, 41, had his right leg amputated after being infected with the novel coronavirus and suffering from clots that blocked blood from getting to his toes.

Lewis Kaplan, a University of Pennsylvania physician and head of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, said every year doctors treat people with clotting complications, from those with cancer to victims of severe trauma, “and they don’t clot like this. The problem we are having is that while we understand that there is a clot, we don’t yet understand why there is a clot. We don’t know. And therefore, we are scared.”
posted by maudlin at 7:40 PM on April 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you. These are a lot of good answers, even the ones we are not marking as "best."

We decided that neither one of us will go to the food bank. We do and will contribute in other ways (financially and politically).

Also, thanks for the info about jobs and unemployment. We are both now working from home. But her job normally involves much interaction with people, including visiting families with young children. I am hoping she can avoid going back to that as long as possible.
posted by NotLost at 8:38 PM on April 25, 2020 [11 favorites]

None of the food banks and pantry programs in my community would allow her to volunteer anyway — they’re now screening based on age and preexisting conditions (which include chronic respiratory issues).
posted by blue suede stockings at 9:39 AM on April 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

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