As Matthew Cardinal drifted in and out of consciousness, he saw more people like him being brought into the intensive care unit.
They were young, otherwise healthy, and all brought within an inch of death by a variant of COVID-19 tearing through southern Saskatchewan.
“When I was in ICU, I was literally waiting for my turn to die,” Cardinal said from his bed at Regina General Hospital on Easter Monday.
“Seeing everyone in there, the way they were, it was one of the scariest things in my life. They kept bringing me out of a coma, a medically induced-coma, to see how I was doing. Each time I would come out of it, I would see people being wheeled in. And it was so depressing to see so many young people going in there.”
Cardinal, 34, believes he caught COVID-19 while working as a bartender and server. He’s now joining calls to expand vaccine access to front-line staff like grocery store workers, clerks and hospitality staff.
He says people working such jobs may be forced to choose between their health and paying the rent.
“I have a few co-workers who have kids and they’re scared to go to work, but they had to, because they had to bring in rent,” Cardinal said. “Which is really scary. They didn’t have the financial stability to say ‘I can’t go in.’ ”
Saskatchewan’s COVID-19 vaccination plan is based mostly on age. Of the 440 deaths reported since March 2020, 377 were people aged 60 and older.
Regina infectious disease doctor Alex Wong said the B.1.1.7 variant circulating in the province is a different beast, and hospitals are now filling with younger patients, often people in high-risk jobs with little financial security.
“They can’t isolate, they can’t stay home. They have no financial safety net at all,” Wong said. “They go to work, they go home, the whole family gets sick in a congregated living environment.”
Saskatoon ICU physician Dr. Hassan Masri said oft-forgotten essential workers like staff at large retailers, truck drivers and grocery stores are making up a bigger share of the patients he sees. Part of that is because older people are largely immunized, but Masri said relaxed restrictions are putting those staff at even greater risk of exposure.
New moms and dads, newly graduating from university students shouldn’t be fighting for their lives in the ICU. I hope to never ever fill up another death certificate with a birthday that is younger than mine. We can do better Canada and we should. — Hassan Masri (@drhassoun) April 5, 2021
“It is impossible to have a healthy economy without having healthy people,” Masri said.
Wong argues the province should respond by making such workers eligible for vaccination, arguing Saskatchewan has both the vaccine supply and infrastructure to allow it.
We have the logistical expertise and leadership on the ground to prioritize frontline workers alongside age. It does NOT have to be an ‘either/or’ proposition. Let’s do the right thing and protect our highest-risk persons, while saving as many lives as possible. (3/3) #COVID19SK — Dr. Alexander Wong (@awong37) April 4, 2021
“It truly feels like an easy win-win for everybody,” Wong said. “We’re not saying that those who are booked or those who are 60-plus can’t get vaccinated — they absolutely can. We can continue with that. At the same time, we need to move everyone else at the front lines to the top of the priority list ASAP before they get sick and die.”
Lori Johb, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, has been advocating for other measures like provincially-funded paid sick leave and rapid testing in crowded workplaces.
“I’m not saying they need to revamp the way they’re doing it, but there’s lots of ways they can include front line workers in the vaccination process,” Johb said.
Masri agreed, even though he noted vaccine supply is still limited.
“(Government) changing their strategy is not a sign of failure. In my mind it’s a sign of success,” Masri said. “We have new data, new information, so let’s change accordingly.”
Cardinal said he is recovering and hopes to start physiotherapy soon. Right now, he can’t so much as walk two steps without a nurse’s help, he said, adding that his greatest fear is not for himself, but that he might pass the virus on to others.
“What’s scary about it is we didn’t know we were sick. And that’s when you’re contagious.”
Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health.