Immunocompromised people in Thunder Bay still concerned as COVID-19 restrictions ease
The province ended vaccine passports for businesses but mandatory masking remains for now
Some immunocompromised people in Thunder Bay, Ont., say the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their ability to live their lives, but remain worried about dropping public health measures such as vaccine certificates and mask mandates.
Ontario lifted its proof-of-vaccination requirements for businesses such as restaurants and gyms on March 1, and Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer for health, said mask mandates could end by the end of the month.
Vaccines are less effective in those who are immunocompromised because their immune systems don't mount an optimal response to them, said Dr. Jen Gommerman, a professor of immunology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and a Canada Research Chair in tissue specific immunity.
"If they do contract COVID-19, they have a hard time clearing the virus," she said. "And so we worry about those people in terms of them having ... really serious complications that wind them up in the hospital."
Heart transplant recipient Joe Lunn said he fears he will die if he catches COVID-19.
Lunn, who takes anti-rejection drugs that suppress his immune system and struggles to fight off common colds, said he still gathers with a close group of friends to play Dungeons and Dragons periodically, but his social life isn't what it used to be.
"I don't go out as much as I used to," he said "I don't hang out with a lot of friends like I used to. I don't put myself in big social gatherings like I used to."
He's not happy about the province's decision to drop vaccine certificates, he said, and he's concerned about the push to do away with masking indoors.
Knowing that the people around him are all wearing masks helps him feel safe, he said.
"COVID has not been eradicated," he said. "Numbers are still going up. And they're going to start taking away precautions. Not not a fan of that idea"
Rules changed for people planning to attend events
Vanessa Mainville, who lives with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, two autoimmune conditions that are treated with immunosuppressant drugs, is less concerned about dropping mask mandates, as long as she and her family members are still free to wear them to protect themselves, she said.
But she's apprehensive about the end of vaccine certificates.
She recently bought tickets to a concert by Mother Mother, assuming that everyone at the concert would need to be vaccinated, she said.
However, with tickets still on sale, the rules have now changed, and people no longer need vaccine certificates to attend concerts.
"This one event I've been looking forward to for months is, like, on the other side of this change," she said. "Do I even want to go to that? You know? I paid hundreds of dollars for it."
Mainville's sense of safety around people who are vaccinated does not stem only from the fact that the COVID-19 vaccine reduces one's risk of infection, she said.
It has to do with what their choice to get vaccinated tells her about their priorities.
"I feel like if [they] have enough of a personal responsibility to do something like that …[they] will take the necessary precautions to continue to reinforce why they did it in the first place," she said, "At least the people I know who have been vaccinated."
- WATCH | See more from immunocompromised people across Canada about how they're feeling about relaxed restrictions
Evelyn Wassaykeesic, who also has lupus, said she wishes she could be vaccinated against COVID-19. But she's been advised against it because of a history of severe reactions to medicines.
She caught COVID-19 at the end of January, and despite the Omicron variant being described as mild compared to other variants, she developed pneumonia and still hasn't fully recovered.
"I still can't really wear a mask, like, if I have to go somewhere," she said. "I, like, suffocate because my lungs are still not like 100 per cent."
Wassaykeesic wants to see mask and vaccine mandates continue, she said, but she would like to see exceptions for people like herself, who have a high risk of serious adverse effects from the vaccine.
'Is this all I'm going to do?'
"They should think about us as well," she said,
"It really cut me off from a lot of things," she added. "Before, I still, went to go out to eat or, you know? Go to play casino or something like that. Movies. And then once they started putting all those restrictions [in place] and like, my whole world just got cut off pretty much because a lot of places needed the vaccine right?"
Right now, Wassaykeesic is having difficulty getting around, and she relies on a lot of help from other people to get groceries and things, she said.
Her children are afraid to go to school for fear of bringing COVID-19 home and infecting her again, she added.
"I go through periods where I feel like, 'Is this all I'm going to do? Sit in my room and live in my house?'" she said.
"I started to go out to my mom's. I started to go visiting again. And I was thinking like, 'Whatever happens will happen. But, now that things are opening up? I don't know. I still don't feel safe to go out."
Mainville has been going to college online during the pandemic, so she hasn't had to deal with any concerns around workplace safety, but in August, she became the guardian of her younger brother, who is still in school.
"It kind of made me more of a hermit," she said. "I've ordered groceries in to limit the amount of times I have to go outside to compensate for the fact that he's got to go outside every day."
Lunn still goes out for coffee with friends every now and again when he's desperate for a taste of normalcy, he said, though he usually sticks with drive-thrus.
He has some friends and family members who are anti-mask conspiracy theorists but they keep their opinions to themselves around him for fear of getting "an earful," he said.
"I have fought too hard to stay alive just to give up because you feel inconvenienced by a four-by-four-inch cloth," he said.