Unable to be essential

Olivia Thomas wearing an N-95 Mask. Ian Blanco/Courtesy

Olivia Thomas was working as an essential worker at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but had to leave her job due to her existing cancer diagnosis

Among the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it can feel like life may never return to normal, says Olivia Thomas. These words have a deeper meaning to Thomas, a young adult who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 17. For Thomas, parts of her already abnormal life have changed greatly. Adapting is the goal.

“It’s definitely changed drastically,” Thomas says over the phone from the safety of her COVID-19-free home. “I don’t know if life will ever get back to the way it was before, I feel like I was living so carefree going to concerts, going to bars, but now I don’t even want to be around anybody.”

Employees of businesses essential to California worked to support businesses and local economies for the state’s population during the pandemic. Some workers continued to clock in, in spite of the rising amount of cases, while others like Thomas struggled to get shifts.

“I worked at a restaurant as a back server and a food runner,” Thomas says. “I slowly started to lose shifts [as cases in California grew] and then everybody in the restaurant got furloughed. They asked for whoever was comfortable to come back, but I wasn’t comfortable with it because I didn’t know how things were going to be. And my doctor told me that I should probably stay home.”

Without income, Thomas fell back on her boyfriend and her mother for support. Her leukemia diagnosis meant she couldn’t return to the workforce.

Leukemia has given Thomas enough trouble, and contacting her doctor and medical providers became extremely difficult as cases of infections continued to rise. Reaching her doctor on the phone to help guide her through the pandemic has been incredibly hard and when she is able to get in contact with her doctor, there was little information for them to give.

When COVID-19 began to spread across the United States, little was known about it, and medical professionals tried giving Thomas medical advice, but “they only knew as much as I did about COVID-19,” Thomas says.

With restrictions and guidelines in place for the entire population, people with pre-existing medical conditions and compromised immune systems must take even stronger measures to protect themselves. This requires taking an aggressive approach to prevent infection from the coronavirus, which is difficult based on how easily the disease can spread even when a carrier shows no symptoms.

Experts have recommended that any activity that risks exposure from outside should be drastically cut down. While many Orange County residents return to work and enjoy restaurants and bars reopening, Thomas’s life remains idle at home. 

“It’s been really hard on my mental health, especially,” Thomas says. “You create a routine for yourself and when you’re taken out of that routine, it’s hard.”

With delivery slots for groceries hard to secure, Thomas and her boyfriend make the trek to obtain essentials weekly. Masks on, the two maintain a safe distance from others and then shower upon returning home to clean any contaminants or possible traces of the coronavirus off of their bodies. Then everything gets wiped with disinfectant: groceries, mail, phones and whatever other items they picked up that day.

“I can only wear an N-95 mask, which is what my doctor told me,” Thomas says. “It’s been really hard to find them. I had to pay like $160 for like 24 masks a couple of months ago.”

Thomas was diagnosed with Leukemia, which affects the blood and bone marrow, in 2017. She undergoes daily chemotherapy, though she experiences frequent fatigue, even as she gains more control over her leukemia.

“I am only able to see family that has been quarantined, but I have to socially distance,” Thomas says. “They have to be doing the same routine that I am, not going out or seeing people outside of our family bubble and being overly cautious like I am. I only really see my aunt because she is really scared of getting COVID-19, and we will wear our masks, but most of the time it’s outside.”

The coronavirus substantially complicated Thomas’s life. The extra attention demanded by her condition works to make even the simplest of tasks challenging. Wearing a mask is critical, she says, because it protects people like her, as well as other impacted members of the community who still need to live their own lives.

“It’s not really about you, it’s about the other people like me that you can protect [with a mask],” Thomas says. “It’s something you can do, a selfless act.”