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‘Sitting back and watching’: Why vulnerable Canadians can’t celebrate the reopening

Health Matters: Relaxing COVID-19 restrictions worrisome for immunocompromised Albertans
WATCH: Health Matters June 2: As the provinces begin to reduce COVID-19 restrictions, some are feeling increased anxiety - especially those with compromised immune systems or chronic conditions. Su-Ling Goh reports.

While many Canadians are enjoying the country’s reopening — including gathering in parks, enjoying lunch on a patio and shopping inside stores — the lockdown remains strict for those who are immunocompromised. 

Health Canada states on their website that vulnerable people, including those with underlying medical conditions, a compromised immune system, or are elderly, are at greater risk for severe complications if they are infected with COVID-19. 

The “reopening” of the country simply doesn’t apply to immunocompromised people, said Kristy Dickinson, 43, the founder of Chronically Simple, a health-care app that helps patients with complex illnesses manage their disease and keep their paperwork in one place.

READ MORE: As COVID-19 lockdown eases, immunocompromised people not likely to experience new freedoms

Dickinson worries about what could happen to her if she became infected with COVID-19 due to her weak immune system, so she is not spending too much time outdoors. 

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“For an immunocompromised person, we’re just sitting back and watching. Everybody that I’ve talked to, no one feels comfortable,” she said. “Nobody within the communities that I’m active in, no one is rushing out. It’s more of a wait and see on our end.”

“We’re even questioning what happens in September,” said Dickinson, referring to a potential second-wave of COVID-19 cases. 

Having to keep isolating 

Dickinson, from Burlington, Ont, was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), in 2012 year, a rare disease that weakens connective tissues in the body. But it took years after her symptoms for Dickinson to have her illness confirmed as EDS, she said. 

She found that with each pregnancy — Dickinson had three children in her 30s — her health continued to decline. 

While Dickinson says her disease had reached a point where she felt it was managed, the last 12 weeks for her and her family coping with the pandemic has already been difficult. 

Miramichi woman finished chemotherapy during pandemic, raising new challenges
Miramichi woman finished chemotherapy during pandemic, raising new challenges

Her husband, a firefighter, also became symptomatic in March, which caused Dickinson to go off of her treatments that suppress her immune system so that she would be less vulnerable at home. 

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Even though her husband has gotten over his illness, they have cancelled all activities for their young children and are limiting outside exposure. That is not going to change although Ontario is reopening, she said. 

Kristy Dickinson pictured with her husband and three children. Photo provided by Kristy Dickinson.
Kristy Dickinson pictured with her husband and three children. Photo provided by Kristy Dickinson. Photo provided by Kristy Dickinson

All Dickinson’s neighbours know about her health condition, and have allowed her children to play with kids next door as she knows they’ve been isolating as well. 

But they won’t be going to a garden centre or brick-and-mortar store anytime soon, she said. 

“I drove past a [garden centre] and just felt the tightness in my chest,” she said. 
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There are many people with “invisible” illnesses where you cannot tell what treatments someone is on and that they are immunocompromised, she said.

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

Not respecting physical distancing towards others becomes scary for those who are living with those diseases, she explained. 

“Now that things are reopening, it’s like they’ve forgotten about any form of physical distancing. I struggle with that. I wish the government would talk about how you don’t know what others around you are dealing with,” she said. 

With so many unknowns on whether Ontario will see another spike in cases, Dickinson says she feels safer staying put and limiting her time in public. 

“It’s really important that society recognizes that everyone knows someone who has a compromised immune system or deals with a chronic illness.” she said. 

The need to protect others in the community

The level of freedom afforded to each person during this pandemic will be different for those who are more vulnerable and deal with chronic illnesses, even if guidelines are loosened, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto. 

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“There’s a wide range of conditions that would make someone still have to be super careful,” he said. “We probably all know someone like that.”

COVID-19 has not gone anywhere, even though the disease may be circulating less in the summer, he said.

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Mothers with cancer facing added stress during pandemic

“If you’re vulnerable you’re going to be playing a risky game by being outside, because at a certain point there’s going to be a second wave,” he said.

“Eventually there is going to be more cases…and are you going to be safe at home, or horribly exposed? That can be very anxiety inducing.”

The safety of more vulnerable people will also depend on their means — if they can afford to isolate in a less populous area that’s not as densely packed as a city, said Furness. 

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“I don’t think that describes most people. We’re going to need to develop a compassionate lens on what can we do, and how can we help,” he said. 

For those who are not more vulnerable or do not have underlying health conditions, there are steps the general public can take to protect others, said Furness.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Canadians struggling with mental health during pandemic

Physically distancing and wearing a mask serve the purpose of protecting others around you, he said. 

“It’s a community behaviour. We really need to continue to ram that point home…we need to protect each other,” he said. 

Wearing a mask can feel like an imposition, and it’s not always an easy thing to do — but it does not curtail your freedoms,  he said. 

‘Try to think of people other than yourself’

Sinead Zalitach, 29, also says she does not feel comfortable going out and she does not trust other Canadians to adhere to social distancing and mask-wearing protocols. 

“It’s like they don’t take into account anyone who has legitimate concerns and are legitimately at risk,” she said. 

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Zalitach, who lives in Toronto, has a rare disease called Parkes Weber syndrome, a vascular system disorder that can be life-threatening. Global News interviewed her about her experiences when the pandemic began in March. 

READ MORE: Canadians waiting for organ transplants feel ‘defeated’ during coronavirus pandemic

Wearing a mask indoors when it is encouraged to do so is a small things others can do to protect people whose lives could be at risk if they are infected with COVID-19, she said. 

“We think too much about ourselves individually,” she said. “Educate yourself and try to think of people other than yourself.”

Sinead Zalitach pictured with her service dog. Photo provided by Sinead Zalitach
Sinead Zalitach pictured with her service dog. Photo provided by Sinead Zalitach. Photo provided by Sinead Zalitach

She says signs should remain in place about physical distancing and wearing a mask, so that even with the reopening others do not forget that Canada is in the middle of a pandemic.

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Going to get a haircut, or going to a restaurant is something Zalitach, but she says knows it’s likely not an option even with the reopening. 

“I wish I could have a fully functioning immune system,” she said. “We want to do all of these things, but because of other people’s carelessness, we kind of can’t.”

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

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.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

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