If a person with chronic obstructive pulmonary lung disease (COPD) contracts COVID-19, their condition puts them at an increased risk of developing a severe case of the disease. Managing COPD for more than 10 years, Tommy Daniels knew that. So, he took steps to get fully vaccinated.
However, on December 4, 2021, the 63-year-old Cleveland, Ohio, resident, who retired early from his job because of his severe respiratory condition, was admitted to Cleveland Clinic Euclid Hospital after contracting the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
His symptoms were mild. Tommy was discharged and back home in just two days. “It was the vaccine,” he says, simply. “It did its job. Without it, I probably would have died.”
Dr. Rachel Taliercio has been caring for Tommy as a patient since 2012. (Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic)
While the vaccine didn’t stop him from getting the virus, his longtime Cleveland Clinic pulmonologist Rachel Taliercio, DO, believes it undoubtedly saved his life.
“Tommy is a shining example of someone who has tried to take care of himself and his community,” says Dr. Taliercio, who began treating Tommy in 2012 while completing her residency training. “Existing lung damage due to COPD means those individuals are more likely to experience severe complications from COVID-19. We know overall effectiveness of the vaccine has led to fewer hospitalizations among people who are vaccinated.”
According to a research study conducted before COVID-19 vaccines were available, patients with COPD who contracted the virus were significantly more likely to die from it than the general population of individuals who contracted COVID-19. Dr. Taliercio has also observed the challenges facing her own patients with COPD who have contracted COVID-19 without being vaccinated.
“Patients who are unvaccinated and get COVID, even if healthy, are at risk for a severe infection. But that is particularly true for patients with a suppressed immune system or those who have advanced lung disease,” she explains. “Being vaccinated is important because even if you get a breakthrough case of COVID, as Tommy did, you’re much better protected.”
Tommy feels the COVID-19 vaccine helped him from contracting a severe case of the disease. (Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic)
The unknown still frightened Tommy when he began feeling symptomatic. “I started coughing. I had trouble smelling and tasting food,” recalls Tommy, who is on continuous oxygen and uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility. “I took the cough medicine, and it didn’t do anything. So, I went to the hospital. When they said I had COVID-19, I thought, ‘Oh, man. This isn’t good.’”
Fortunately, his two-day hospital stay was uneventful, and he didn’t require the use of a ventilator. Dr. Taliercio says despite Tommy’s setbacks, he’s continued to make healthy decisions, just as he did more than a decade ago when he quit smoking. His smoking habit was the likely cause of his severe COPD.
“Not only did he survive COVID, but he had a really mild form of the illness,” she says. “That’s really remarkable for somebody who otherwise was at high-risk.”
“Look, the vaccine works,” says Tommy, who recently got his COVID-19 booster shot. Throughout the course of managing COPD, Tommy has been in the intensive care unit three times because of his condition. The severity of his disease is another reason he wanted to get vaccinated. “Some people say they won’t get the shot. I say, that’s on them. COVID is nothing to play with.”