It may be milder, but prospect of catching Omicron still frightening for immunocompromised people

·4 min read
People line up for a COVID-19 booster shot at a St. John's Shoppers Drug Mart in mid-December. According to public health officials, the booster is an important part of protecting against the Omicron variant. (Ted Dillon/CBC - image credit)
People line up for a COVID-19 booster shot at a St. John's Shoppers Drug Mart in mid-December. According to public health officials, the booster is an important part of protecting against the Omicron variant. (Ted Dillon/CBC - image credit)
Ted Dillon/CBC
Ted Dillon/CBC

People with compromised immune systems, disabilities and other chronic conditions in Newfoundland and Labrador say they feel forgotten by the provincial government's response to the latest wave of COVID-19.

During a media briefing last week, the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, said most people in the province likely will catch the virus at some point.

"The reality of this virus is that it's so infectious, most people will acquire it, but our health-care system can't stand the pressure of everyone acquiring it at the same time," she said.

The Omicron variant, which is much more infectious than previous COVID-19 variants, has led to record case counts in Newfoundland and Labrador and across Canada. However, N.L. health officials have not implemented the lockdown measures seen during previous outbreaks.

"Our objective right now is to slow the inevitable spread," Fitzgerald said.

Jeremy Nolan, a Memorial University student and theatre practitioner, said those words made him feel hopeless.

"It feels like they're giving up, especially on the most vulnerable people who can't afford to get it," Nolan said in an interview with CBC News.

Nolan has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the respiratory and digestive systems by producing too much mucus. He's had a lung transplant due to the condition, and he manages the disease with pills and checkups every few months.

Since the pandemic started, he's had an influx of anxiety during each outbreak because of the potential danger of COVID-19, a virus that primarily affects the respiratory system. Mounting evidence suggests the Omicron variant, while more infectious, is milder than previous variants. Nolan said that doesn't matter — for him, contracting the virus could have severe consequences.

"I could easily die from it," he said. "It's definitely terrifying to think about."

Impact on the vulnerable

Nolan said he's been impressed by the government and Public Health response to COVID-19 up until now, but feels let down by the current health measures. He's calling for a full lockdown, a measure that he says will more effectively protect the most vulnerable.

"I'd like to see them … take the initiative to kind of protect everyone."

John Dooling, a St. John's IT worker, has a circulation condition called Buerger's disease, which leads to limited mobility and chronic pain in his feet. He said he's worried about how COVID-19, which affects circulation in some cases, could worsen his condition.

"What is currently happening [to] my feet, you know, just turned up to 11," he said.

Dooling said he's also worried about vulnerable family and friends who could be severely affected if they contracted COVID-19. He said he'd like to see more consideration given to people with compromised immune systems or a chronic condition like his own.

"We're only as good as how we treat our weakest people," he said.

Workers left in the lurch

Newfoundland and Labrador is currently in modified Alert Level 4, which means retail stores, fitness facilities, salons and restaurants can remain open with some capacity restrictions. Officials have encouraged people to work from home where possible, but most service industry workers do not have that option.

Krysta Kentfield, a baker at a St. John's café, says the current rules don't do enough to protect vulnerable workers.

"It just seemed like there was a complete disregard for people's underlying conditions, and people that work in industries that can't take time off when they're sick without having it affect their finances," she said.

Kentfield, who has asthma, said it can take months for her to recover from even a mild cold. Kentfield takes three medications for asthma and another for allergies; she said the idea of getting COVID-19 is nerve-racking.

"I'm just always assuming that I'm going to be one of the people that's hospitalized," she said.

Kentfield, who works with the general public in her day to day job, said she takes all the precautions she can, but is still worried about catching the virus. She's also worried about her children, one of whom also has asthma. She noted that service workers are not given paid sick days, despite the risk of transmitting the virus to the public if they do contract COVID-19.

As of Friday, there were four people in hospital in Newfoundland and Labrador due to COVID-19. Kentfield pointed out the potential stress on the health-care system if that number rises.

She said she's heard arguments from some friends and family members that Omicron should be allowed to spread because it is more mild — but she pushes back against that notion.

"What matters is we have to take care of our most vulnerable," she said. "This has been the message that we've been getting right from the beginning, and I would like to see them continue on with that."

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