Sickle Cell Disease + COVID: The Importance of Getting Vaccinated

While 28-year-old Keyondra Smart knew at a young age that she suffered from sickle cell disease (SCD), she didn’t fully understand the effects of the illness until four years ago when she was hospitalized at Jackson Memorial Hospital with acute chest syndrome and double pneumonia, which occurs when the infection affects both lungs.

Sickle cell disease is a group of hereditary red blood cell disorders that causes the cells that carry oxygen around the body to become hard, sticky, and c-shaped like a sickle. The cells tend to die early, leading to a shortage of oxygenated blood cells. The disease can also put a patient at a higher risk of developing infections.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that more than 100,000 Americans suffer from SCD, and 1 in 13 Black or African American babies is born with sickle cell trait.

After a month’s stay at Jackson Memorial, Keyondra fell into a deep depression. She had to relearn how to walk and was struggling with the reality of living with the effects of SCD.

“I was on my deathbed and in the intensive care unit for two weeks,” Smart said. “I had never experienced so much pain before. I was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted.”

Slowly, Smart came to terms with the disease and began learning about ways to manage her ongoing pain and symptoms.

She returned to school and was determined to graduate despite days when she did not feel well following her treatment.

A few years passed, and as Smart’s life seemed to be getting better, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“My anxiety came back because I was so scared of the virus,” she said. “I already have a weak immune system, and this was something I could die from.”

Sickle Cell and COVID

Thomas Harrington, MD, and Maya Bloomberg, MSN, APRN, are the adult sickle cell providers in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at Jackson Memorial. They explained that patients living with sickle cell are at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. SCD patients who get sick with the virus experience higher rates of hospitalizations and complications, along with worsening sickle cell pain.

Additionally, studies performed before COVID vaccinations were available and the spread of the Delta variant also showed racial disparities in terms of life expectancy due to the virus.

“While life expectancy dropped for all groups, it has been worse for the Black community,” Bloomberg said. “Overall life expectancy dropped by one year for Caucasians and two years for the Black population.”

One study published via PLOS ONE showed that the difference in life expectancy was due in large part to increased exposure at work and access to personal protective equipment.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Faced with the discouraging disparities and risks to patients with sickle cell, Dr. Harrington and Bloomberg are encouraging their patients and the community to get vaccinated.

“You need to put the relative risks in perspective,” Bloomberg said. “The COVID-19 virus is very unpredictable, especially the latest Delta variant. People assume that only older people with health conditions are getting sick and dying, but more and more we’re seeing younger people in the hospital with severe COVID cases.”

If people are worried about the vaccine or have concerns, she encourages them to turn to speak with their doctor.

Keyondra chose to get vaccinated after speaking with Dr. Harrington, who is one of the few experts in sickle cell care in South Florida.

“I know people are scared because there’s a lot of information out there, and they might think it’s a setup, but you should talk to your doctor about any concerns you might have,” Smart said. “I highly recommend other SCD patients get vaccinated, too. We’re already fighting one disease. Who wants to fight two?”