Mixed emotions for immunocompromised Ontarians as the province continues to reopen

As Ontario lifts a number of pandemic restrictions, what will it mean for those who are immunocompromised? Faiza Amin reports on the new normal, that's raising questions for a population that's felt ignored.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

Immunocompromised Ontarians are experiencing mixed emotions regarding the latest loosening of restrictions in the province.

Capacity restrictions were lifted at restaurants, bars, gyms, and other establishments on Thursday, and as of March 1, most remaining measures will be removed — including showing vaccine passports in indoor settings.

CityNews spoke with immunocompromised people to discover how they feel as the province begins to return to this new normal.

Jordan Lutchman from Brampton, who has ulcerative colitis and is immunocompromised, said he believes everyone should be responsible for themselves.

“It’s time to start living again. And to be out there. We can’t just hide in a box for the rest of our lives,” said Lutchman.

Meanwhile, Joanna Mitchell — whose 16-year-old daughter has been a patient at Sick Kids’ hospital since receiving a heart transplant as a baby and is on medication that suppresses her immune system — said she has mixed emotions about the reopening.

“I do understand that people are really frustrated, and they want to get back to normal, and our family does too, [but] it’s been a difficult couple of years for families with an immunocompromised family member. We’ve had to lock down even further,” said Mitchell.

When asked about the lifting of the restrictions, Mitchell said, “I think it’s fast. I think we still have a lot of COVID going on in the community, and we’re not able to track that very well now. I’m hearing of way more friends, including in our transplant community, coming down with COVID than I have at any other point in the pandemic. And that makes it scary.”

Jocelyn Kervin, who is fully vaccinated, is currently in remission after being diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer.

Kervin says she shares Mitchell’s concerns.

“Lifting restrictions increases the possibility of me encountering it more in places I wouldn’t originally.”

She admits having vaccine passports lifted will alter the way she lives.

“It changes certainly what I will be able to do, what I’ll feel comfortable doing. I’m not likely to be going out to restaurants and eating in an area where I’m going to be unmasked with large numbers of people without being able to be confident in the fact that they are as safe as I am,” said Kervin.

Mackenzie Wilson, an 18-year-old from Cambridge, is immunocompromised. Wilson works at a grocery store and takes the bus every day to work. He says he feels comfortable at his job knowing all his coworkers are vaccinated but adds he will be taking precautions elsewhere.

“I still won’t be going into restaurants at all. I won’t feel comfortable doing that. Especially with vaccine passports lifted, I don’t know who’s going to be vaccinated or not.”

Two doctors CityNews spoke with agreed that a more staged approach to reopening would be the best way to protect immunocompromised people.

Dr. Amit Arya, the palliative care lead at Kensington Health, said he would have liked to see the province keep vaccine mandates in place and increase the definition of fully vaccinated from two doses to three.

“I feel that with the government dropping the program of vaccine certificates instead of upgrading them, which is what we needed at this time, we’re sending a message to people who are immunocompromised, people with disabilities and also many young children who are ineligible to get vaccinated in the first place, that they’re on their own,” said. Dr. Arya.

“We don’t need a lockdown. What we need is our government to actually provide us [with] the tools to keep businesses, restaurants, bars, and gyms safe for people who are immunocompromised.”

Dr. Arya said these tools also include proper N95 masks for those most at risk and more funding for air filtration systems so those indoor settings can become safer for everyone.

Indigenous Health Strategy Lead for Women’s College Hospital and Associate Dean at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Richardson, said she had spent the last couple weeks on the COVID inpatient unit where most sick people were either unvaccinated or immunocompromised.

Dr. Richardson said all she can do now is tell her patients to do what they can to mitigate their own risk. This means getting vaccinated, continuing to wear masks and utilizing rapid antigen tests if they’re available.

Richardson says the province would be taking a staggered approach if it were up to her.

“I would, rather than a blanket lifting, everything going back to normal right away, I would say a more staged approach with certain places that are higher risk places having mandates remain in effect.”

On top of that, resources to help those who are more at risk. “I would be thinking about making sure that those people who are immunocompromised have quick and easy access to treatment if they do test positive, but also, they have a good supply of the rapid tests and that they have free masks.”

Disability Rights Advocate Amanda Laduke said many people she has spoken with are afraid.

“It’s really scary to think about going back out into the world with a virus that’s still out there. The virus has not disappeared. It’s still out there. It’s still mutating,” Laduke said. “It still poses a threat to everybody but to disabled and immunocompromised people especially.”

While many refer to these measures as restrictions, Laduke says a more vulnerable population to COVID-19 sees them as protections.

“All people are asking for from the disabled, chronically ill and immunocompromised communities is a little bit of care going forward recognizing that this threat is still out there.”

Both Mitchell and Kervin shared the sentiment that removing these restrictions leaves the most vulnerable populations forgotten. “The way that the mandates are being lifted so quickly. It’s a very ableist policy. As a society, we are supposed to protect our most vulnerable, and by lifting these mandates so quickly, we’re saying we don’t really care about the vulnerable in our society,” said Mitchell.

“I think that we’ve really been forgotten … It disappoints me that we’re not considered in some of those precautions, the precautions that I’m going to take personally are precautions that could be done collectively,” added Kervin.

The province says proof of vaccination requirements was only ever intended to be a temporary measure. The Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, stated this week he was optimistic that Ontario is on the right path.

“We have a high level of protection from exposure, but also from vaccine immunity that’s keeping us safer as a population, as a community. We also have better treatments of therapeutics. We even have outpatient oral tablets that you can take, which is a potential game-changer to keep people out of the hospital,” said Dr. Moore.

“So all of these new interventions really make it safer to open, but we’re doing so cautiously, optimistically, phased, in stage, which is has been our success in the past, and it’s certainly my hope and my intent; to keep us open as possible.”

As for masks, Dr. Moore said they do not have a planned date for when the mandates would be removed. When they make the shift, it will transition from a mask mandate to a recommendation.

“I would certainly hope that vulnerable members of our community that are at risk for this virus that are immunosuppressed or transplant patients in public spaces would continue to mask and we may review masking for public spaces like in transport systems like subways, buses, etc., to ensure that everyone’s confident to use those resources,” said Dr. Moore.

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