Manitoban with multiple chemical sensitivities wants wider exemptions, alternatives to vaccine passports

Sarah Gwen Peters, 74, says the provincial government’s criteria for medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine passports dismiss the concerns of people like her with multiple chronic health conditions.

Province's COVID-19 vaccine exemption rules 'insult' people chronic health conditions, she says

Sarah Gwen Peters hasn't had a COVID-19 vaccine, due to fears about how her body might react — inspired in part by a bad past experience with a vaccine, she says. She wants Manitoba to expand exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, or offer alternatives to vaccine passports for unvaccinated people like her. (Submitted by Sarah Gwen Peters)

A Manitoba woman says the provincial government's criteria for medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine passports dismiss the concerns of people like her with multiple chronic health conditions.

"It's an insult, really," said Sarah Gwen Peters, 74.

She has been diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities and has battled chronic infections throughout her life, she says.

Peters hasn't had a COVID-19 vaccine, due to fears about how her body might react — inspired in part by a bad past experience with a vaccine, she says.

Peters wants the province to expand the criteria for medical exemptions or offer an alternative, such as rapid testing, that would allow her and other unvaccinated people to dine in at restaurants, and participate in other activities open to the fully vaccinated population.

"I'll wear a mask for the rest of my life in public if I need to," she said.

She also wants the government to take a more respectful approach to addressing the concerns of vaccine-hesitant people.

After she got the smallpox vaccine as a teenager, the injection site became swollen and painful, taking over a year to heal, Peters said.

Repeated assurances from medical professionals that the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada are safe, even for people with severe allergies or immune deficiencies, do little to convince her.

'Few reasons' for exemptions

Manitoba's current guidelines on exemptions set out three specific cases in which a medical specialist might advise against getting the vaccine.

Exemptions may be allowed in cases where someone had a severe reaction to a first COVID-19 vaccine dose, is receiving treatment that affects their immune response (such as certain cancer treatments), or if they had a severe allergy or anaphylactic reaction to a previous COVID-19 vaccine dose that cannot otherwise be managed.

All exemptions must receive final approval from Manitoba's vaccine implementation task force. 

Peters doesn't think the exemptions for those who had previous reactions to a vaccine make sense.

"To me, that's like saying, 'Well, here, take this Kool-Aid and see whether you're still standing afterward,'" she said.

Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for Manitoba's vaccine task force, said the exemption criteria were created by a medical advisory committee made up of specialists from many different fields, including allergists and immunologists.

The exceptions "are narrow, I would agree with that, because there truly are very few reasons why somebody would not be able to get the vaccine," she said.

Other provinces, like British Columbia, have no medical exemptions for the requirement to show proof of vaccination to access certain services and businesses.

Prolonged illness

In Manitoba, anyone who feels they might qualify for an exemption under the province's criteria must first consult their doctor. Only a specialist physician can request a medical exemption from the province — individuals cannot submit their own requests.

Peters has not seen a specialist about whether she has a severe allergy to any of the specific components of either of the two mRNA COVID-19 vaccines — from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — or the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which uses a viral vector technology. 

"I have been to allergists in the past, and they all want to poke holes in my body, which isn't helpful in itself, nor are the results ever meaningful," she said.

She says she's struggled through repeated prolonged illnesses since early childhood, including a chronic case of candidiasis — an overgrowth of a type of fungus that is normally present in everybody — that lasted for 16 years. 

Despite seeking help from multiple specialists, she says it was only when she began taking naturopathic treatments that her health improved.

In 2002, a physician diagnosed her with multiple chemical sensitivities, she said.

But Reimer says Peters's severe allergic reaction to a vaccine she received in childhood does not necessarily put her at higher risk of a bad reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine, because the ingredients are different.

Doctors have referred patients to the allergy clinic at the Health Sciences Centre, but so far, all have been able to receive the vaccine.

"They have not yet recommended against immunization for anybody with an allergy," Reimer said.

However, "there are times where they have to do it very cautiously, and start with a very tiny dose and increase it over time in the clinic, to ensure that the person doesn't have a reaction."

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba's vaccine implementation task force, says for those with a weak immune system, the risk from COVID-19 far outweighs any potential risk from the vaccines against the illness. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

As for people with a weak immune system, Reimer said the risk from COVID-19 far outweighs any potential risk from the vaccines.

Peters says she respects Reimer, who, like her, comes from the southern Manitoba community of Winkler.

Although she insists she isn't anti-vaccine, Peters doesn't believe the mainstream medical establishment takes concerns like hers seriously. 

One thing she said might make her more comfortable taking a vaccine would be approval from health practitioners outside the Western medicine tradition, such as naturopaths.

"I don't see where this needs to become a polarizing thing. These medicines are complementary," she said.

THE NATIONAL | What qualifies for a COVID-19 vaccine exemption?

What qualifies for a COVID-19 vaccine exemption?

2 months ago
As vaccine mandates become more common, doctors are bombarded with questions about medical exemptions. But with few objective criteria most people won’t qualify for an exemption. 5:15

In a statement to CBC Manitoba, the Manitoba Naturopathic Association, which regulates naturopathic doctors in the province, said vaccinations are beyond their scope of practice.

In its guidance on vaccinations, the association advises members to direct questions about vaccination to the appropriate health professionals. 

"Anti-vaccination marketing or counselling (printed or provided verbally) is therefore prohibited," the association's guidelines state.

The Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges, which represents accredited naturopathic medicine programs in Canada and the United States, has published vaccine guidance on its website:

"In the groups for which these vaccines are authorized, it is believed that any possible or theoretical risk of these vaccines is far less than the very real risk of COVID-19 to healthy people and those in their circles."

As of Friday, nearly 85 per cent of eligible Manitobans had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Peters says many of the people in the group who remain unvaccinated are like her — not opposed to vaccines, but worried about possible reactions. 

Unless they feel like their concerns have been addressed, Peters says she and many others like her will remain hesitant to get the vaccine.


Cameron MacLean

Online Reporter

Cameron MacLean is a journalist living in Winnipeg, where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience covering news in the city and across the province, working in print, radio, television and online.


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