Family of B.C. leukemia patient worries they’re being overlooked in COVID-19 vaccine plan

When Lucy Andersen returns from her hospital stay later this month, her immune system will still be recovering from multiple rounds of chemotherapy, leaving her particularly susceptible to infection with the novel coronavirus.

Andersen, a West Vancouver artist and personal trainer in her 50s, was diagnosed with leukemia about six months ago. Infection is a leading cause of death for people with leukemia, which has made the pandemic particularly frightening for the family.

But because she has a compromised immune system, Andersen isn’t currently eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and her family has spent months in isolation to protect her.

Her husband, Chris Kelly, believes people with diseases and disabilities that affect the immune system would be better protected if those they live with were a priority for vaccination.

“With COVID, if I make a mistake, if we let our guard down and we introduce this infection, it could have catastrophic consequences to our lives,” Kelly told CBC News. 

He’s written to Health Minister Adrian Dix to ask for protocols to allow families like his early access to immunization. 

“If you cannot vaccinate these people, there’s been no mention of how we’re going to protect them by their caregivers or the people they live with being vaccinated … so they could engage in life with a little less risk and a little less anxiety,” Kelly said.

Chris Kelly, shown here in a family photo with his wife Lucy Andersen, would like to see family members of immunocompromised people get priority access to COVID-19 vaccines. (Chris Kelly)

No vaccine has been approved for use on immunocompromised Canadians. People like Andersen haven’t been included in clinical trials, a Health Canada spokesperson said in an email, so there’s just not enough information yet on how they might respond.

“As such, vaccine manufacturers will have to present extra clinical data on safety for the current recommendations to be revised,” the email said.

The B.C. government has not listed families and caregivers for immunocompromised people as a priority for the first stages of vaccine rollout, but Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said a more detailed plan is still being developed and it’s expected to be unveiled later this month.

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the health ministry said the government understands how difficult the pandemic has been for people with underlying conditions and their loved ones.

“We appreciate the sacrifice that people have made to help keep their loved ones safe and stop the spread of COVID-19,” the email says.

‘We just sort of closed our doors’

Andersen has spent a large portion of her treatment as an in-patient at Vancouver General Hospital’s leukemia unit, which means no one has been able to see her because of COVID-19 protocols.

When she returned home in September, Andersen, Kelly and their 17-year-old daughter went into isolation for nearly three months. 

“We just sort of closed our doors, other than going out for walks with the dog,” Kelly said. “If she had the energy, she would sometimes talk to friends on the driveway. We would set up chairs like 15 feet apart.”

Lucy Andersen and her family have lived in isolation after she was released from hospital in September. (Chris Kelly)

Friends and family dropped off groceries and other daily needs, and when Kelly drove Andersen to her chemotherapy appointments, he waited outside in his car or at a nearby park so he wouldn’t be exposed to anyone else and potentially bring the virus home.

“At times she had no white blood cell count, she had no immune system, and she was a hugely high risk,” Kelly said. 

Andersen received a long-hoped-for stem cell transplant on Dec. 23, and is currently recovering in hospital. Kelly hopes to have her home later this month.

But that will mean more isolation and more fears of infection. In preparation, their daughter has moved in with an aunt so she can start attending classes again, and Kelly doesn’t expect her to return home until they’ve all been vaccinated.

He said he understands that there are many other vulnerable groups awaiting news about vaccination, and the province has some hard decisions to make about how the doses are distributed.

He just wants to know there’s a plan.

“I just want to make sure we’re not being overlooked,” Kelly said.

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