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Immunocompromised Albertans react to plan to lift restrictions


‘If I get this disease, it’s going to be really bad. I don’t want to leave my 10-year-old or my husband’

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Marleigh Goulet sprays disinfectant on every surface before she touches it.

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She wears a mask and gloves, even when outside. She only leaves her apartment to buy groceries, and her son has been homeschooled for two years. That’s because for Goulet, a COVID-19 diagnosis could be fatal.

“My hepatologist told me that if I catch COVID, I will die,” Goulet said. “I have to spray everything because I cannot take the chance. Especially with Omicron, I can’t take the chance of getting sick.

“If I get this disease, it’s going to be really bad. I don’t want to leave my 10-year-old or my husband.”

The 45-year-old mother was diagnosed with auto-immune hepatitis in 2007, which means her immune system is rejecting her liver. She takes anti-rejection drugs and steroids to suppress her immune system, but this leaves her vulnerable to severe impacts from COVID-19.

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Even with three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, doctors have told her they don’t know how her body will react to the virus.

When Premier Jason Kenney said the restrictions exemption program would be lifted within days over Facebook Live last week, Goulet said she broke down and cried.

“Does nobody care about the most vulnerable? Why are anti-vaxxers getting priority over the sick? I don’t understand … how am I ever possibly going to leave my house?” she said.

She spoke about other people in her apartment complex who are also immunocompromised — a 45-year old man with dementia, a 72-year old woman with chronic inflammatory lung disease.

“It is difficult actually, it makes me very angry. I’m disappointed in humankind. What happened to helping each other?”

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On Thursday, the Alberta government announced the restrictions exemption program will be lifted at midnight, meaning businesses will no longer be required to check vaccination status.

Masking will no longer be required for children under 12 years old starting on Feb. 13. Other restrictions will lift on Feb. 28 if hospitalizations decrease, with the majority of other restrictions gone by March 1, said Health Minister Jason Copping.

“This represents a careful and prudent approach to removing public health measures in Alberta,” Copping said. “We will continue to closely monitor the health-care system, and we will take action when necessary to alleviate pressure in future waves or spikes.”

Youth between the ages of 12 and 17 who have additional risk factors will be eligible for third doses as of Tuesday next week, Copping said. Details are coming on boosters for immunocompromised children between the ages of five and 11.

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Jason Copping, Minister of Health, provides an update on COVID-19 restrictions from the McDougall Centre in Calgary. Tuesday, February 8, 2022.
Jason Copping, Minister of Health, provides an update on COVID-19 restrictions from the McDougall Centre in Calgary. Tuesday, February 8, 2022. Photo by Brendan Miller/Postmedia

Lifting COVID-19 health restrictions is something Chad Anderson wanted to see. His six-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia in 2019, and receives chemotherapy treatments daily.

However, he said he does not believe his son is at any higher risk from COVID-19 than other viruses. Anderson and his family, who live near Water Valley, are not vaccinated.

“It’s pretty obvious now that vaccines doesn’t stop infection or transmission. So I don’t even think it has a place in this discussion,” Anderson said.

He pointed to provincial data of COVID-19 cases in vaccinated people, and pre-existing conditions present in deaths.

“My son is immunocompromised, and if he gets COVID, he will be sicker for longer than the other kids. But it’s not going to kill him.”

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Dr. Lynora Saxinger, infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said children in general have had a relatively lower risk of severe outcomes over the course of the pandemic.

But when children require hospital support, they generally are children who are immunocompromised or have multiple medical conditions, she said.

“Over the last wave, there have been actually more children who are compromised, who have required hospital support than there had been in the past,” Saxinger said.

Over the last four months, 9.3 per cent of Alberta’s COVID-19 cases involved unvaccinated children with pre-existing conditions between the ages of five to 11. In comparison, there were no positive cases recorded for that age group for immunocompromised children who received three doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

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Full vaccination can still allow for weakened immune systems to have a partial response to the virus, which offers some protection, Saxinger explained.

“I’m just not quite sure why you wouldn’t choose to take that potential additional protection.”

Early treatments, including intravenous infusion of antibodies and Paxlovid medication, can reduce the risk, she said.

“If they meet the criteria for testing, they should absolutely get tested, because then they could get prioritized for treatment that would reduce the risk of severe disease.”

Immunocompromised people should continue to limit the number of people they see as restrictions lift and the virus becomes more present in the community, she said.

“Unfortunately it does put the onus back on immunocompromised people to try to shield themselves more, when in fact is very difficult to shield when there’s so much infection in the community.”

bgervais@postmedia.com

Twitter: @BrittGervaisAB

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