Mom of St. Amant resident who died of COVID puts aside longtime vaccine fears, urges others to get the shot

A Manitoba mother whose son died of COVID-19 says she's putting aside her fear of vaccines and is encouraging others to get vaccinated as well to protect the most vulnerable.

Odette Carreiro's son Mark died of COVID-19 in December

Odette Carreiro holds a framed photo of her son Mark, 36, who died of COVID-19 in December 2020. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

A Manitoba mother whose son died of COVID-19 says she's putting aside her concerns about vaccines and is encouraging others to get vaccinated for COVID-19 to protect the most vulnerable.

"I still fear the vaccine, but I'm going to push away my fears and I'm going to say that everyone, no matter what age you are, if you are a vulnerable person you need to get vaccinated," said Odette Carreiro.

Her son Mark died of COVID-19 on Dec. 19 at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital after spending more than two weeks on a ventilator. He was 36 years old.

"I couldn't even be with my Mark," who was in an intensive care unit with other COVID-19 patients. "I had to watch Marky's last breath on Zoom," she said.

"No one should go through that."

Carreiro believes that Mark had an adverse reaction to a vaccine as a child. It's something her doctors said was impossible to prove, but "I've always been very leery of vaccines after that," she said.

Odette Carreiro, pictured here with her son Mark, has had a fear of vaccines since he was a child. (Submitted by Odette Carreiro)

Carreiro never vaccinated her second child, and refused the yearly flu vaccine as well, out of fears of potentially harmful side effects.

Mark suffered severe brain damage as an infant from seizures and was never able to walk or talk. 

Vaccine safety being tracked

At the beginning of January, Health Canada had received nine reports of adverse medical reactions after administering the coronavirus vaccine, following over 115,000 vaccinations in Canada, but saw no evidence of unexpected side effects.

According to the government of Canada website that tracks adverse reactions, nine people reported experiencing a total of 65 symptoms — eight of which were considered severe — as of Jan. 1. 

All nine people received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

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Adverse events can range from soreness at the injection site or a slight fever to severe allergic reactions. The website notes that not all adverse events experienced by people after receiving a vaccine are necessarily caused by the vaccine.

Of those who reported serious symptoms, three suffered severe allergic reactions, one reported a headache, one reported facial paralysis, one suffered chills, another fainted and one reported pain in extremities.

The most frequent non-serious adverse events reported so far have been swelling at the site of injection, nausea and a sensation of pins and needles, according to the data.

WATCH | Mom whose son died of COVID-19 urges eligible Manitobans to get vaccine:

Mom whose son died of COVID-19 urges eligible Manitobans to get vaccine

CBC News Manitoba

3 months ago
A Manitoba mother is putting aside her fear of vaccines to help others. Odette Carreir's son Mark died of COVID-19 last month at the age of 36. Mark lived at St. Amant Centre for most of his life. 2:32

Health Canada has advised that people with allergies to any of the ingredients in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines should not receive them and should speak with a health professional about any serious allergies or other health conditions they may have before getting the vaccine.

'Need to be open-minded'

Mark had lived at Winnipeg's St. Amant Centre, which provides services for people with developmental disabilities, including a residence, from the age of 15.

In November, he was identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 case and had been put into isolation. He wasn't showing any symptoms until one day, he started having trouble breathing, his mother said.

He was given a COVID-19 test, but before the results came back he was rushed to hospital and was quickly placed on a ventilator.

"[It happened] that fast. And that was the end — I never saw him again after that," Carreiro said.

Mark Carreiro had lived at St. Amant Centre in Winnipeg from the age of 15. (Submitted by Odette Carreiro)

The 60-year-old mother wasn't able to see her son in hospital because her younger son insisted she not put herself at risk. Instead, her other son and Mark's father were at his side when he died.

Carreiro says she has nothing but gratitude for the care he received at St. Amant, where workers were like his family for 20 years. 

She's speaking out now because she wants everyone to understand how important it is to protect vulnerable people like her son.

"Sometimes we are stubborn in our thoughts and our beliefs," she said.

"But we need to be open-minded to what is happening around us now, and everyone's decision of what they do is going to affect not just you but your neighbours, and your loved ones." 

She hopes that people with disabilities are not forgotten about when it comes to administering the vaccine in a timely way.

People with disabilities vulnerable

That call is echoed by the staff at St. Amant.

"Many of the residents that are in our congregate care setting at 440 River Rd. have complex medical issues," said St. Amant president and CEO John Leggat.

"They may not be as old, but they have significant risk factors that really, I think, create a strong argument for them to be vaccinated along with the typical personal care home residents."

Manitoba has prioritized vaccinating health-care workers, but started expanding vaccinations to residents in personal care homes and vulnerable people on First Nations last week.

Leggat fully expects St. Amant to be included in Manitoba's month-long drive to vaccinate all residents of long term care homes, though he hasn't heard an official date yet.

The centre has about 100 residents at its River Road location, and Leggat said he hopes the approximately 170 St. Amant clients living in group homes will also be among the next to become eligible for the vaccination.

He said many of the staff were included in the first round of health-care workers to get the vaccine, and many others will soon be eligible.

So far, three residents and one staff member at St. Amant have contracted COVID-19, according to provincial data. The lone death connected to that outbreak was Carreiro's son.

Leggat said he hasn't heard from any families of residents yet that don't want the vaccine.

"I don't hear much of the fear yet," he said. "We're hearing lots of the hope. This is the opportunity for lives to start to open up again."

St. Amant has begun the process of gathering consent for vaccination, and is working to combat concerns about the vaccine through evidence-based information and making sure families have all the resources they need to feel confident in their decisions, Leggat said.

'I will do what I have to do'

Carreiro said she will always be wary of vaccines, and knows many have questions about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines because they are new. But she says her fear of COVID-19 and its impacts outweigh her fear of vaccines.

"We're not talking about a flu, where you might be gravely ill for a couple weeks — we're talking about death," she said.

"I will do what I have to do to protect others."

She says if her son was still alive, she would have given him the vaccine.

"I would have rather taken the chance that I did everything in my heart to protect Mark from COVID."