Cross Country Checkup

People with 'invisible illnesses' at risk during COVID-19 pandemic, says woman with autoimmune disease

Many people in self-isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely doing so for the first time. But this is a typical flu season precaution for Laura Brown, who has a rare autoimmune condition.

Self-isolation and heightened personal hygiene practices are nothing new for Laura Brown

Laura Brown posted these photos of herself on Twitter to illustrate the potentially dire effects of her rare autoimmune disease. 'I am the immunosuppressed. It’s not just the elderly at risk,' she said, in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Laura Brown/Twitter)

Many people in self-isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely doing so for the first time. But this is a typical flu season precaution for Laura Brown.

The Toronto-based writer and designer has mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD), a rare autoimmune condition that can produce symptoms similar to several other tissue diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

"All of the precautions that are being touted in the media are the ones I take generally on every flu season from October to May," Brown, who is currently under self-quarantine, told Checkup host Duncan McCue.

"So the recommendations that they are putting out is just what has become my new normal since being diagnosed."

A growing number of Canadians are working from home or going into self-isolation this week, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country surpassed 300.

Public figures currently in self-isolation because of testing positive of the virus, or being in contact with people who have tested positive, include Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow.

Brown says she is "highly diligent" about washing her hands. She takes public transit often, so she frequently uses hand sanitizer as well. She doesn't eat "communal food" and wipes down her phone with disinfectant wipes every day.

She's also used to not touching her face in public — a difficult habit to break when she was diagnosed with MCTD shortly after her 30th birthday.

"If I do have to touch my face, I will use hand sanitizer. If I have an itch on my nose [or] my eye I will touch my face at home, because my home is very sterile. But it's just something that has become a part of my day to day," she said.

On Friday, Brown tweeted two photos of herself from last spring that were taken a few weeks apart. The first shows her in a room where she gave a presentation to about 500 people.

The second was taken from a hospital bed where she was treated for a serious infection after a visit from her mother, who had recently recovered from a viral chest infection.

"We thought she was over it, and it would be safe to visit. It turns out it wasn't. I ended up catching it. I got really, really sick, and developed a secondary bacterial infection because of it, which landed me in the ER," she said.

Brown was sick for about three weeks after that infection, and battled minor recurring infections months after that.

She followed up that tweet with another using the hashtag #HighRiskCovid19, which some people have been using to highlight their conditions and put a spotlight on people who may not fit popular conceptions of who is most likely to suffer the worst effects from the novel coronavirus.

Brown hopes that people learning about social distancing, self-isolation and other hygiene practices will take those lessons with them through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

"Don't forget this once COVID is over. Take these practices into the next cold and flu season. If you are feeling sick — stay home. Work from home," she entreated.

"There are people like us who have what appear to be invisible illnesses out and about in community, and you can still infect us if you stop doing that day-to-day hygiene that you've adopted through this COVID process."

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Ebyan Abdigir.