‘I get infections all the time’: Protecting the vulnerable from novel coronavirus

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What can we do to help those most at risk of getting COVID-19?
Washing your hands and staying at home are a couple ways to help prevent vulnerable people from being exposed to the novel coronavirus. – Mar 17, 2020

The message to Canadians has been clear from health officials amid the novel coronavirus outbreak: stay indoors and limit your interactions with others.

While bars and restaurants across the country have voluntarily shut down, officials are concerned about those who continue to gather in large groups.

Simply because some have a strong, healthy immune system and could fight off COVID-19 if they were diagnosed, it doesn’t mean others have the same luxury, says 28-year-old Sinead Zalitach.

Zalitach has a rare disease called Parkes Weber syndrome, a vascular system disorder that can be life-threatening. She recently recovered from a case of septicemia, a blood infection.

“With my condition, especially with viral stuff … that can impact me,” she said. “I’m one of those people who catches everything … I could lose my ability to walk, my ability to move.”

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As the number of cases of COVID-19 increases in Canada, Zalitach worries that there may be a lack of beds if she needs assistance. Her doctor has told her to avoid the hospital, as there’s a higher chance she could get sick there — unless her life is in danger.

Health Canada recommends “protective self-separation” for those at risk for severe illness due to COVID-19, which they define as immunocompromised people, older adults and those with an underlying medical condition. 

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Friends and family have been respectful of Zalitach’s vulnerabilities during the pandemic. Her mom is also immunocompromised and as a result, her dad is buying all the groceries, she said.

Stricter measures from health authorities on gatherings and more people staying home would ease her fears, she said.

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Sinead Zalitach pictured here with her service dog. Photo by Kristina Laukkanen. Photo by Kristina Laukkanen

“I think people need to take it more seriously,” she said. “It’s nice that you have a great immune system … but I can catch a common cold from anyone, that’s how sensitive I am.”

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This also means not pressuring those with compromised immune systems to leave their homes.

“If somebody tells you, ‘no, I can’t do this.’ Take them seriously. Respect people when they say no.”

The importance of protecting more vulnerable populations

Now is a crucial time to be responsible and modify your behaviour to lessen the impact on more vulnerable portions of the population, said Dr. Alon Vaisman, a Toronto-based physician who specializes in infectious diseases and infection control.

“Although a lot of people will be fine … these patients might have worse outcomes, including having to go to a hospital, being admitted to an intensive care unit or even die as a result,” he said. 

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Many could be carrying the novel coronavirus and have no symptoms, he explained. “As a result of carrying it, you may pass it on to more vulnerable individuals without even knowing it,” he said.

Steps you can take to prevent infecting those who are at high-risk include staying home and washing your hands, Vaisman said. Children, in particular, can be carriers and will then expose elderly people to more serious infectious, he said.

If your family or close friends are elderly or immunocompromised people, use common sense when deciding whether to interact with them and respect their wishes if they want you to stay away, he said.

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“If you’re sick, don’t go see them. If you’re coming to see them wash your hands and don’t go in a large group,” he said. Do not meet them in a public space, choose a private area with less risk of exposure to others.

“Everyone has to make that decision about their loved ones. Think carefully about how much contact they can provide, how they’re doing, what setting their living in, and how sick their loved-one is,” he said. 

It’s important to not completely isolate others and to connect with them in a way that’s reasonable and safe, Vaisman emphasized. Keep your distance from the person when visiting and don’t share utensils or food. And as an ongoing reminder, only visit people if you have no symptoms.

“It’s not an unreasonable idea to visit those individuals … just doing it in safe conditions,” he said. “Use common sense and try to be careful.”

‘Going to be a difficult few weeks’

Across the country nursing homes have placed restrictions on visitors to protect the elderly who are more susceptible to catching the virus. 

Some who care for the elderly at home, however, are unsure how to protect them — especially when a loved one’s memory is an issue.

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Lisette Sayes of Hamilton, Ont., says she has always lived with her father. The 27-year-old tells Global News he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012 and dementia in 2018. 

She says she is feeling concerned about her father. 

“My father is very active and doesn’t do well with staying in the house all day,” she said. “He goes to a day-program twice a week, but it’s closed until next month due to the virus.”

She added dementia makes it hard for him to understand why he can’t go out and he often gets agitated.

“It’s going to be a difficult few weeks for him.”

As a family, Sayes says they’ve decided not to attend church anymore and work from home when possible. 

“If any family members have to pop by, we have them wash their wash hands, or just wait at the door if they need to talk to us,” she said. “However, all of my family live at home with my dad too. We’re all prepared to leave home and self-isolate if we’re showing any symptoms.”

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She said it’s important for others to follow public health recommendations. People like her father are more at risk.

“Even if you think you’re not going to get sick, you can carry the virus and infect someone who may not be able to survive the virus.”

She also believes there needs to be more information available for caregivers like herself.

“We’re going to be dealing with a lot in the next few weeks in order to protect our loved ones from this virus … [you can help by] practising good hygiene etiquette, and offer to do grocery shopping/errands for caregivers.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— With reporting from Global News’ Arti Patel

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