Immunocompromised families doing tricky calculus as Ontario's pandemic rules end

With masks no longer required in Ontario's schools, immunocompromised families are trying to balance safety with social needs.

End of most mask mandates means delicate balancing act of risks

Meagan Keaney-Morgan is a parent of three children under five years old, and has an immunocompromised partner with one lung. They're keeping all three children at home now that mask mandates have been lifted in most settings. (Meagan Keaney-Morgan)

With masks no longer required in Ontario's schools and hospitalizations up last week at eastern Ontario's children's hospital CHEO, immunocompromised families are trying to balance safety with social needs.

Meagan Keaney-Morgan is a parent of three children under five and has an immunocompromised spouse with one lung.

They've been cautious throughout the pandemic and have decided to keep all three children at home now that mask mandates have lifted in most settings.

"We're really trying to protect our [five-month-old] baby because we don't want to end up at CHEO … We don't want the worst-case scenario to happen," she told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"While our five-year-old is double-vaccinated and would love to return to school this week, it's just too risky."

So until all of Keaney-Morgan's children can be vaccinated to reduce the chance of serious illness, the lack of masking will force the family to make tough choices about leaving home.

They took their baby to a grocery store once before mandates were lifted, but won't again.

"It's really unfortunate that health measures are being lifted while COVID is definitely still present and so many people are still getting sick," Keaney-Morgan said, also pointing to the predictions of a coming mini-wave.

A different calculus with older children

For Dawn Pickering's family, the benefits of in-person learning are, for now, outweighing the relative safety of staying at home after two years of tough restrictions.

She and her partner have two older children, a 13-year-old daughter, Abby, and a nine-year-old son, Ollie, an immunocompromised cancer and stem cell transplant survivor.

Both kids missed out on two full years of in-person learning after Ollie's diagnosis and treatment and need more social time after so much isolation, Pickering said.

Dawn Pickering, right, with her daughter Abby and son Ollie. Both children are back in class in person after two years of isolation as Ollie was diagnosed with cancer and treated. (Submitted by Dawn Pickering)

"We just decided that for their mental health, if we could manage the risk of having them at school, that would be the best thing to do for them both," Pickering said.

To manage the risk, they're keeping a close eye on coronavirus levels in the city's wastewater and will pivot back to online classes if they feel it's necessary — as they did when the Omicron variant arrived in the last weeks of winter.

'Be kind' to people still wearing masks

They also feel lucky teachers and some families at their school have reached out to say they'll keep wearing masks to help keep their family safe, she said.

"People really are doing the best they can. I certainly don't expect everyone to do [it]; we're hoping that more people will," Pickering said.

"But most importantly, what I really want people to do is to be humane and kind to those who continue to mask."

WATCH | Ottawa parents report 'a mix of emotions' about masks at schools:

Ottawa parents report ‘a mix of emotions’ as mask mandate comes to an end

2 years ago
Duration 1:13
Some parents outside an Ottawa elementary school say it’s the right time to start lifting restrictions, while others say they’re hesitant to remove masks completely.

Pickering also said she resents the idea immunocompromised families are acting more out of fear than anything else.

"We try to make decisions based on the limited data that we have, and try to be logical about it," she said.

"You're managing your risk, you're mitigating your risk, and you're making good decisions for your family, just as you always should with every aspect of child-rearing."

More CHEO COVID hospitalizations

Admissions of children with COVID-19 at CHEO have risen since the start of the Omicron wave, which matches the city-wide trend.

Of everyone admitted to CHEO with COVID-19 throughout the entire pandemic, 72 per cent have been admitted since Dec. 1, 2021, CHEO spokesperson Paddy Moore wrote in an email.

COVID patients have been about 10 per cent of all admissions during the Omicron wave. Only 33 per cent of them were admitted for COVID-19 as the primary reason, the others would have come for other reasons and then tested positive.

Moore said there were at most two children admitted to CHEO with COVID-19 from March 3 to 12, but by this past weekend that had jumped to six and seven patients. He said the hospital has averaged six such patients in the wave.

Overall, Ottawa's hospitalizations and other pandemic trends have generally stabilized in March at levels higher than they were before Omicron.

With files from Joseph Tunney and CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning