End of B.C. mask mandate makes some immunocompromised feel unsafe

Mask wearing is one of the simplest things people can do to protect those more at risk of severe COVID-19 complications, says a cancer survivor, and B.C.’s lifting of the mask mandate is provoking anxieties in those most vulnerable and their loved ones.

“I don’t see how it’s asking too much of individuals to have this one barrier of safety for immunocompromised individuals,” SFU student Simran Sarai tells CityNews.

Some universities in the province followed B.C.’s lead and announced masks will no longer be needed in indoor public spaces. Sarai says these policies reflect a greater culture in which disabled, immunocompromised people are not treated equally.

Related Article: B.C. mask mandate lifts Friday, vaccine passport ends April 8

The pandemic has been far from easy for Sarai, since she is more susceptible to additional infections of the COVID-19 virus. So when people who aren’t immunocompromised can return to a relatively normal pre-pandemic life, Sarai says, “I’m always so taken aback” when she cannot do the same.

“I’m a contributing member of society. I care about my education, I care about my school community, I care about my community at large. Even if you’re not an active participant in life — which I don’t think you’d have to be to have more life and your opportunities valued equally — I just don’t understand how asking immunocompromised individuals to change their lives completely is the best solution.”

Andrew Longhurst, a health policy researcher and Ph.D. student at SFU, says he wants to remind British Columbians 44 per cent of Canadian adults 20 years and over have at least one of 10 common chronic conditions.

“I think we’ve entered the what some have called the ‘pretend-demic phase,’ where I think officials are … pretending that the pandemic is over and it’s not,” he said. “I think this shift is premature.

“This is … not a significant burden to ask people to wear a face-covering when you’re sharing air. We know this is an airborne virus. We know that it spreads easily in the air.”

When Sarai was six years old, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia — a blood cancer. She underwent treatment for two and a half years and then follow-up care until she was 19.

“Due to some of the chemotherapy and treatments I received … the provincial health office deemed anyone that had a history of blood cancers clinically extremely vulnerable,” she said. “So my treatment puts me at higher risk. I have a greater risk of it like contracting lung infections.”

While she is a cancer survivor and still at risk, Sarai says she is fortunate because immunocompromised people are at a greater risk than her and have to take even more precautions.

Rea Chatterjee is another SFU student who lives with two immunocompromised family members. She has also had to adjust her whole life through the pandemic. Removing the mask mandate in public and at school is scary to her, she says.

Chatterjee says there is a history of disabled and immunocompromised people are being ignored, so the recent policy change is repeating its discriminatory habits as this at-risk group is asked to “stay at home and … just protect themselves.”

“For me, it’s just incredibly ableist. It’s following a lot of eugenics sentiments — just kind of telling immunocompromised people that they have to stay at home, basically … protect themselves against the virus,” she said.

“And this whole phrasing like ‘we’re going back to normal’ is so insulting and completely ignoring immunocompromised community members and just completely isolating them from social experiences, and just excluding them from this like path back to normal,” Chatterjee said.

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SFU, UVic, Thompson Rivers University, and Langara College said they would be easing their requirements for face coverings in indoor public settings like classrooms, recreation facilities, and common areas on campuses.

“Just the thought of going back to campus and being in these lecture halls filled with over 300 students, sometimes it’s just really anxiety-provoking, and the fact that I have to go back to my home and like I’m possibly endangering my family members,” Chatterjee said.

UBC has decided to keep its mask requirement for public indoor spaces on both campuses, until the end of the Winter Session.

Chatterjee and Sarai are also expressing concerns over TransLink’s change to lift its mask mandate.

“I do transit in between campuses … So I was hoping they would keep masks on public transit, at least because it seemed like a smart idea and an easy way to keep members of the public who rely on transit and commute all over the Lower Mainland safe,” she said. “But that got taken away.”

Last summer, B.C. lifted its mask mandate. However, it was reinstated not long after when COVID-19 transmissions crept upwards.

Longhurst says because the province has seen this move away from masks before, we have also seen firsthand how the virus can mutate locally and on a global scale.

“It’s really unfortunate that we are moving into a stage where we’re not acknowledging the fact that we are creating preventable harm, and much greater preventable risk among people who are immunocompromised, who are disabled, who live with chronic diseases, are elders,” he said. 

“We continue to see a high level of death in this province and in this country. And as we likely remove these protective measures … we’re likely to see hospitalizations go back up. And without these measures, it’s going to be much, much more difficult to reduce transmission. And likely to see fairly significant rates of death and severe outcomes, because we have pulled back on these very basic, fundamental protective measures.”

Longhurst also says the messaging around maks have been unclear throughout the pandemic since “wearing masks indoors, not only protects the wearer … but it protects those around you.”

“So I think the issue here with things like indoor mask mandates, is it’s a measure intended to prevent [spread to] the community. And I think what these measures say is that we are disregarding the fact there are structural inequities in society, and that there’s differential risk to people,” he said.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie has urged patience and understanding — saying not everyone is ready to abandon the most visible safeguard against COVID-19 — and she also says individual businesses have the right to decide if face coverings are required on their premises.

Some places where masks must still be worn include Vancouver International Airport and on all flights, and in courthouses across the province. 

After spring break, all elementary and secondary school student can take off their masks. 

Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix have both warned the province must be ready to pivot if COVID-19 cases spike as restrictions are eased.


With files from The Canadian Press 

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