While Ottawa moves to suspend its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for air travel and federal employees, unvaccinated British Columbians are still facing obstacles while trying to visit loved ones in the hospital.
B.C.’s proof-of-vaccination policy for hospital visitors has been enforced sporadically from when it was first announced last fall, with numerous exceptions carved out for visits related to compassionate care, critical illness, palliative for pediatric care, labour and delivery.
Frontline healthcare staff are saddled with making the determination of whether a visitor is eligible for an exception, causing significant anxiety for some unvaccinated visitors.
Kelowna resident Wendy, whose last name is not being published for the privacy of her son, was trying to visit him at Kelowna General Hospital after he was attacked and badly hurt downtown on June 4.
Her son, who is 29, was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago and picked up an addiction to opioids that has progressed to heroin. He lives a street-entrenched lifestyle.
Wendy, who was in Alberta at the time, called the hospital to check on him and was told she would not be able to visit without proof-of-vaccination.
“The thought that we couldn't go and see him was devastating. I can't even tell you how devastating that was. Like my heart almost stopped beating,” she said.
After doing some research, she learned she may be eligible for an exception. And on her first visit, she was allowed to visit him with little resistance at the front door.
But in the following days and visits, she says she had to resort to a combination of pleading and arguing to be allowed to visit her son, with experiences varying wildly depending on who is manning the front door of KGH.
Wendy described the situation as “humiliating” and “demoralizing.”
“We all have reasons why we chose to take the vaccine and not take the vaccine. That's a personal choice, right? I don't discriminate over anybody or judge anybody,” she said, adding society has to “move on" from mandates.
B.C. is somewhat of an outlier in Canada in requiring visitors to hospitals be vaccinated, although some individual hospitals in Ontario are still requiring it. Hospitals in that province are individual corporations managed by a board. Nova Scotia also still lists an active policy on its website.
Mutations in the COVID-19 virus means vaccine protection has waned significantly. While two-doses of the vaccine still provides protection against serious illness, the same can’t be said about contracting the virus.
A large study published in April in the New England Journal of Medicine found people who received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had no protection against contracting the Omicron variant after 20 weeks. People who received two doses of Pfizer had just 9% protection after 25 weeks. Moderna drops to 15% after 25 weeks.
Booster doses increase protection significantly, but boosters are not required to be considered “fully vaccinated” in B.C. and able to visit hospitals.
In a statement to Castanet, the B.C. Ministry of Health says the province’s healthcare facilities treat the most vulnerable in society, “so it is important that we maintain this important layer of protection for them.”
“Public health bases all decisions to put in place or lift restrictions on a careful review of where we are in B.C. in this pandemic,” the ministry continued.
Similar restrictions are in place for visitors to seniors in long-term care, where the pandemic has been the most deadly.