A Manitoba woman says the regional government’s criteria for medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine passports dismiss the concerns of persons like her with many chronic health conditions.
“It’s an insult, really,” said 74-year-old Sarah Gwen Peters.
She has been diagnosed with several chemical sensitivities and has battled chronic infections throughout her life, she says.
Peters has not had a COVID-19 vaccine because of fears regarding how her body could react, inspired in part by a bad experience with a vaccine, she says.
She wants the region to expand the criteria for medical exemptions or provide an alternative, such as rapid testing, that would permit her and other unvaccinated persons to travel without having to self-isolate on their return, eat at restaurants, and take part in other activities open to the fully vaccinated population.
“I’ll wear a mask for the rest of my life in public if I need to,” she said.
She additionally wants the government to take a more respectful approach to addressing the issues of vaccine-hesitant persons.
After she got the smallpox vaccine as a teenager, the injection website became swollen and painful, taking over a year to heal, Peters said.
Repeated assurances from medical professionals that the COVID vaccines currently approved in Canada are safe, even for persons with severe allergies or immune deficiencies, do little to convince her.
‘Few reasons’ for exemptions
Manitoba’s current guidelines on exemptions set out 3 specific cases in which a medical specialist could advise against getting the vaccine.
Exemptions may be permitted in cases where a person had a severe reaction to a first COVID-19 vaccine dose, is getting treatment that affects their immune response (like certain cancer treatments), or if they had a severe allergy or anaphylactic reaction to a former COVID-19 vaccine dose that cannot otherwise be managed.
All exemptions must obtain final approval from the province’s vaccine implementation task force.
Peters does not think the exemptions for those who had former reactions to a vaccine are sensible.
“To me, that’s like saying, ‘Well, here, take this Kool-Aid and see whether you’re still standing afterward,'” she said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for the region’s vaccine task force, said the exemption criteria were established by a medical advisory committee made up of specialists from a number of different fields, including allergists and immunologists.
The exceptions “are narrow, I would agree with that, because there truly are very few reasons why somebody would not be able to get the vaccine,” Dr. Reimer said.
Other provinces, such as British Columbia, have no medical exemptions for the requirement to show proof of vaccination to access certain businesses and services.
In Manitoba, any individual who feels they could qualify for an exemption under the region’s criteria must first consult their doctor. Only a specialist physician can request a medical exemption from the territory – persons can’t submit their own requests.
Peters has no seen a specialist regarding whether she has a severe allergy to any of the particular components of either of the two mRNA COVID-19 vaccines – from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech – or the Astra-Zeneca-Oxford vaccine, which uses a viral vector technology.
“I have been to allergists in the past, and they all want to poke holes in my body, which isn’t helpful in itself, nor are the results ever meaningful,” she said.
Peters says she has struggled through repeated prolonged illnesses since early childhood, including a chronic case of candidiasis – an overgrowth type of a fungus that’s usually present in everybody – that lasted for 16 years.
Despite seeking help from several specialists, she says it was just when she started taking naturopathic treatments that her health improved.
In 2002, a physician diagnosed her with many chemical sensitivities, she said.
However, Reimer says Peters’s severe allergic reaction to a vaccine she received in childhood doesn’t necessarily put her at higher risk of a bad reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine, as the ingredients are different.
Doctors have referred patients to the allergy clinic at the Health Sciences Center, but thus far, all have been able to receive the vaccine.
“They have not yet recommended against immunization for anybody with an allergy,” Reimer said.
“there are times where they have to do it very cautiously, and start with a very tiny dose and increase it over time in the clinic, to ensure that the person doesn’t have a reaction.”
As for those with a weak immune system, Reimer said the risk from COVID-19 far outweighs any possible risk from the vaccines.
Peters says she respects Reimer, who comes from the same community as her, Winkler.
Whereas Peters insists she is not anti-vaccine, she does not believe the mainstream medical establishment takes concerns like hers seriously.
One thing she said might make her more comfortable taking a vaccine would be approval from health practitioners outside the Western medicine tradition like naturopaths.
“I don’t see where this needs to become a polarizing thing. These medicines are complementary,” she said.
As of Friday, almost 85% of eligible Manitobans had received at least a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Peters says many of the people in the group who stay unvaccinated are like her – unopposed to vaccines, but worried about potential reactions.
Unless they fell like their concerns have been addressed, Peters says she and many other people like her will remain unvaccinated.