British Columbia

As restrictions, guidelines around COVID-19 shift, those most vulnerable say they feel left behind

As the province opens up gyms, restaurants and schools, those most at risk of catching the virus and experiencing severe illness are being advised to be "extra cautious."

'Many folks feel like they're just being discarded in this rush to get everybody back to work'

Aviva Martin says she feels like seniors are the "ignored generation" as restrictions lift, but risk of suffering from serious illness from COVID-19 remains high for the province's elderly. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Guidance and restrictions around COVID-19 are constantly evolving, and those at most risk of contracting the virus and suffering from severe illness say they feel forgotten.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said last week it is impossible to eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19, and the province is shifting its approach to the virus away from testing and contact tracing. Instead, residents are being asked to self-monitor for symptoms.

The province has also opened up gyms and restaurants with limitations, as well as schools, while indoor events are permitted to operate at half-capacity. On Tuesday, Henry advised people to do what they can to minimize transmission and risk, to help keep vulnerable populations safe.

Meanwhile, people who are at higher risk are advised to be "extra cautious" and to get tested if they're experiencing symptoms so they can access treatment should they become seriously ill.

"I kind of feel like we are now the ignored generation at this time because whereas everybody else is encouraged or allowed to go to restaurants and do all those things, we are supposed to just be extra careful," said 75-year-old Aviva Martin.

"We are just not being supported."

'We need to look after these people'

Geriatrician Dr. Maria Chung said seniors and people with disabilities feel they can't leave their homes or socialize out of concern they will catch the virus as transmission continues and restrictions loosen.

"It's heartbreaking," she said in an interview with B.C. Today host Michelle Eliot.

"We need to look after these people. These are the people that built our society and contributed to the economy, and they really deserve respect for that.

"It's been really hard for me to see that people are being encouraged to get on with their lives, but not if you're senior or not if you are immunocompromised."

Martin said seniors who don't live in assisted living or long-term care facilities haven't been given the support they need to make it through another extended period of isolation. 

That goes for people who have disabilities, too.

Jewelles Smith, a researcher and advisor on disability and gender, said there's an assumption that those who are disabled are in long-term care or hospital, and little planning was done to support those who live independently.

"We feel extremely ignored and neglected in this conversation, right from the start," Smith told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

"The distress that I've witnessed since Friday online with my community is profound … many folks feel like they're just being discarded in this rush to get everybody back to work."

Jewelles Smith, who is clinically extremely vulnerable, worries people who can spread COVID-19 will now be out in the community, keeping people like her from going out. (Sarah Mickel)

Smith has barely left her home over the past two years out of concern for her safety, and the new messaging makes her wonder how long that will continue.

"I feel like until we understand this new variant better and until the numbers in hospital go down, that … having people self-monitor, we know that doesn't work. Many people don't even believe COVID is real until they get it."

She's concerned people will continue to go to work even if they're experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, which means the virus will continue to spread throughout communities, making it less and less safe for people with compromised immune systems. 

"I worked in the service industry, and if you weren't coughing up a lung, you came to work," she said.

"I'm just really worried that Dr. Bonnie Henry has a lot of faith in people who really don't think about the diversity of our community."

Chung said the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and public health officials have a difficult job of trying to balance the economy and normal life for most, with ensuring society's most vulnerable populations are cared for. 

Henry said she doesn't expect the current restrictions to be in place long-term, but it's "what we need to do to get us through this part."

"I do believe we're going to be living with this virus," she said.

"It is a reality that people who don't have a strong immune system will still be at risk of having more severe illness and we see that with other respiratory viruses that cause infections as well."

With files from The Early Edition and BC Today

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