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A doctor shared on Twitter she’s at higher risk for COVID due to chronic illness. It inspired hundreds to do the same.

The University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, which is affiliated with Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.LINDSAY D'ADDATO/NYT

Dr. Sarah Bernstein, a neonatologist in Utah, was up late on Monday night, unable to sleep and thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic when she took to Twitter to share a disconnect she had noticed through treating patients.

On Twitter, Bernstein shared a selfie and a message: due to a heart condition, she was at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19. She invited others to share a photo and their own story “so we can show people what chronic illness really looks like.”

The idea came out of a dissonance she had noted in her own life. As a doctor working in the newborn intensive care unit, nearly every patient Bernstein sees is at high risk for severe outcomes due to the virus. At the same time, Bernstein, who works at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, has recently noticed people posting to social media about being “done” with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as statements about how the Omicron variant is mild.

“Because I can’t share specific stories of my patients and their families, I can share my own personal story,” Bernstein, 35, said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “It was kind of an attempt to bring the person back into the conversation.”

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Hours after posting it, Bernstein’s tweet has been retweeted and liked tens of thousands of times. The hashtag she used, #IHaveAPreexistingCondition, started trending. And it inspired dozens of others to share their own personal stories of having chronic illnesses that put them at higher risk for severe outcomes if they were to contract COVID.

To Bernstein, discussions of the United States’ 800,000-plus person death toll and other numbers measuring the severity of the pandemic can feel impersonal and desensitizing. By using herself an example, she said she was attempting to humanize those who are at higher risk for the virus and to show that chronic illnesses aren’t always visible.

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“It’s really hard when you’re looking at a child or a new mom, or in my case me,” Bernstein said. “And so when people say things like, ‘it’s mild’ or ’only people with chronic illness get sick and die.’ Kind of what I hear is: ‘I don’t hear about people who have underlying conditions and it’s okay if they die.’”

Bernstein, who has a heart condition that she developed after catching mononucleosis as a teenager, said she posed the question on Twitter of whether chronic illness looks different than one’s expectation because a lot of the time, those ailments aren’t visible. Plus, those who choose not to engage in COVID precautions and make comments that the pandemic is over may be unknowingly endangering people they are close to, Bernstein said.

“When people don’t wear a mask and they don’t wash their hands and they say these kinds of things, you’re potentially putting at risk people, oftentimes, people you may love or are close to without realizing it, because a lot of people have chronic health conditions, and it’s not automatically obvious, and you can’t tell just by looking at them,” Bernstein said. “I also kind of wanted it to serve as a reminder that there are a lot of people out there where getting COVID wouldn’t be mild, and it is scary.”

Soon after Bernstein sent her tweet, Twitter users began responding with photos of themselves and their health conditions using the hashtag. The sentiment resonated with people more than she expected, Bernstein said.

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“What I really appreciate about it is that it’s not one type of person,” Bernstein said of the people responding to her tweet. “It’s not just people who look like me. It’s people who are young and old and their kids and their parents, people with visible disabilities, people who don’t have visible disabilities, people who have had transplants and are immunosuppressed.”

The range of people sharing their stories communicates what Bernstein was trying to say with her initial tweet, she said.

“People with chronic conditions and disabilities are the people around you,” Bernstein said. “They’re your friends and your family members, whether you realize it or not, and everyone has these different experiences, and you may not be aware of it.”


Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.