Families of immunocompromised Albertans worry risk will rise as masks come off

Immunocompromised Albertans and their loved ones are anxious that the elimination of most COVID-19 measures will open the door to even more risk, so they’re trying to plan a safe path forward.

The province lifted its indoor mask mandate on Tuesday along with other protections, including gathering restrictions. There are a few exceptions in which masks continue to be required, including public transit, hospitals and continuing care facilities. In addition, the City of Edmonton still has a mask bylaw in place.

“It’s gonna be a little scary out there for kids like ours,” said Lia Lousier, whose 10-year-old son Braeden has a rare genetic disorder. A COVID-19 infection could send him to the ICU.

Braeden’s immune system doesn’t function properly, which is an even bigger concern for the Airdrie mother now that measures such as the provincial mask mandate are gone. When Braeden was in kindergarten, he was hospitalized for pneumonia nine times.

“COVID is terrifying to a lot of parents, especially with children like Braeden that have chronic lung disease … [and] heart conditions. He basically has a complication with every organ in his body,” Lousier said.

But with the elimination of most public health measures, Lousier is apprehensive and said they’ll continue wearing masks in public and limiting outings.

“We’ll always evaluate every situation we’re going into from here forward,” she said.

“You think about is it worth taking him out so we could possibly spend a couple of weeks in the ICU?”

Masks stay on

Calgarian Deanne Cotton-Cornwall has four autoimmune disorders — including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis — and is on two immuno-suppressive medications, given by injection, to control her conditions.

She is considered high risk for severe illness and just received her fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. She, too, is worried about the removal of the mask mandate.

“It’s a concern.… We know the current strain is very contagious and people like myself would be very likely to catch it and would have a harder time fighting,” said Cotton-Cornwall, who has spent that last two years of the pandemic limiting her outings.

She said she feels she has to be even more cautious now.

“I have to say I’m not quite comfortable for myself, and I hope that people will respect when they see people wearing masks that there’s probably a good reason for it.”

Deanne Cotton-Cornwall has four autoimmune disorders and is on two immuno-suppressing drugs as a result. She is high risk despite being vaccinated four times. (Deanne Cotton-Cornwall)

While many Albertans will return to more normal activities, there is no end in sight to the isolation for Paulette Stalinski, 74, of Calgary.

She has liver, kidney and heart problems and said she’s “somewhat terrified” as public health measures are eliminated.

“I’m very nervous for it. I’m afraid for myself and for other people … COVID is still going on. It’s still happening. And I think we’re just jumping the gun here by washing the restrictions all at once.”

She has been hunkered down for two years and has no intention of changing that, particularly now. Stalinski plans to continue with routines such as grocery shopping online.

“It’s just not safe for me to go, for sure,” she said.

At Calgary’s Peter Lougheed Centre, internal medicine physician Dr. Gabriel Fabreau cares for COVID-19 patients. He said he’s still seeing medically fragile people who’ve done everything they can to protect themselves, including getting vaccinated, succumb to COVID.

“I signed multiple death certificates this month,” he said Monday.

Fabreau estimates between 80,000 and 100,000 Alberta adults are immunocompromised — including transplant recipients and people being treated for cancer and autoimmune diseases — and he believes it’s too early to drop masks.

“When we know that there are things that we can do to reduce the risk to them and we choose not to do them because it’s an inconvenience to us, we are essentially telling them that their lives matter less.”

Nina Snyder, chief operations officer with Alberta Lung, hopes vulnerable Albertans aren’t stigmatized for putting their safety first.

“[For] our patients and their families, even a really bad cold can hospitalize them,” said Snyder, who has heard from families who will continue to wear masks and take steps to further isolate now. 

“We all have those rights. And if someone wishes to protect themselves by wearing a mask, that is entirely up to them, and we shouldn’t be attaching any stigma or negative comments toward them.”

Alberta reported 14 more COVID-related deaths over the weekend, with ages ranging from 40s to 90s.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the worst of COVID-19 is behind Alberta.

He noted, however, there is still a need to protect the immunocompromised — citing his government’s decision to maintain mask requirements on transit and in health-care settings — and he called on Albertans to respect people’s personal choices.

“There will still be those Albertans who choose to wear masks more generally and who make choices for themselves and their families and their level of risk. These Albertans must be respected for their choices.”

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