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'Our lives are in limbo': Parents of vulnerable toddler say family carers should be moved up vaccine priority list

Health officials and the minister have said it is unlikely family carers will be moved up the list.

David Nolan and his son Ollie.
David Nolan and his son Ollie.

THERE HAVE BEEN calls for family carers to be designated as key workers so they can receive their vaccination earlier on in the roll-out.

Health officials and the government have indicated a change in the scheduling for this group is unlikely. This week they pointed out that many of the people being cared for in their homes by family members will receive their vaccination in the next stage of the roll-out, which covers those aged over 70, and will therefore be protected.

This has offered little comfort to parents like David Nolan, who cares for his three-year-old son Ollie. Ollie has Type 1 diabetes and requires specific and dedicated care to avoid serious illness.

“He’s nearly a year diagnosed, so the Covid year has basically been the diabetes year for our family,” Nolan told TheJournal.ie. “I feel ignorant looking back at how I used to think about diabetes, I never realised the volume of work that goes into managing Type 1.

“His blood glucose needs to be kept in a certain range – if it goes low he will faint and could go into a coma. If he has too much insulin he could be in that situation too.

“We have to keep on top of his blood sugar, carbohydrate control, his insulin. We have an insulin pump and we have to change his cannula (a tube inserted into the body to administer medication), we have to measure his medicine and actually set his dose ourselves depending on his diet and current activity levels.”

There are two main concerns for Nolan and his wife; the first is that Ollie could contract the virus and become very ill, the second is that they, his carers, could become sick with it and therefore unable to provide his care.

“If he gets sick it’s not necessarily Covid that will be the problem, diabetes is the problem. He was in hospital with a head cold previously because his blood sugar became so erratic.

“If he has it, he’s at risk of needing treatment in a clinical setting. And if we had it and were sick with it, Ollie would have to enter a clinical setting because of the demands of his care.

“If there is even one decimal place in error with his insulin it could put him in a coma. The way I see it is that there are lots of reasons to vaccinate carers, and one is to keep the vulnerable children we care for out of hospital. He can’t get the vaccine, I want to get it so I can protect him from Covid.”

Speaking in the Dáil this week, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said “it is not my decision but a clinical decision based on expert advice”.

Donnelly said family carers will be “covered under the various categories into which they might fall”. 

“For what it may be worth, my view is that an even bigger priority are the people being cared for. In many cases, the vaccinations will begin in mid-February for those aged over 70,” he said.

“It is not everyone, obviously. Some people who are being cared for will have underlying conditions and there has been a lot of discussion on that.”

The issue was also raised at the HSE weekly press briefing, with officials stating that the order in which various groups receive their vaccines is unlikely to significantly change.

CEO Paul Reid said there are “many justifiable cases” for vaccination right now and there is a limited supply of doses.

“Frankly what I’m trying to do is manage expectations,” he said, adding that every time the health service indicates there could be small movement on it “there is a massive swell of demand for various understandable reasons for different workforces”.

He said it will not be a decision by the HSE, it will be for the National Immunisation Advisory Council (NIAC) to advise any changes to the sequencing.

“It will be impossible to meet all of those justifications.”

Dr Anne O’Connor, Chief Operations Officer, said she wanted to make it clear that the health services “would be lost without family carers”.

They do a phenomenal job and we do know that in terms of caring for their family members. I wouldn’t want anyone to think it’s not about recognising what family carers do, it’s just in the context of all of the competing demands and the available vaccine supply – that is the limiter.

Currently David Nolan will likely not receive his vaccine until August or September as he is in the second-last category, those aged 18-54 who did not have access to the vaccine in prior phases.

Due to their occupations and ages, everyone else in the family, including his wife and their parents, will get their vaccinations before him, despite the fact that he is Ollie’s registered carer. 

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It is likely that Ollie will not receive a vaccine due to his age and his medical condition. 

Nolan is calling for family carers to be classed as ‘essential workers’, the sixth group on the vaccine schedule. 

He said that while many people in the country have been able to return to some of their normal activities when restrictions were lifted, his family has been cocooning for almost an entire year.

“We have a new playground that opened up recently in the area and we don’t go there. Ollie is three and he needs to be able to develop his social skills, visit his cousins, go and play with his friends, learn to converse with people his own age. He can’t do that,” he said.

“I feel like we’ve been left behind, our lives are in limbo.

“And we can’t stay completely out of the community either. We have to bring our daughter to school, our son has to go to his HSE clinics, to his GP for check-ups, we have to get his medication from the chemist. All of his services are in the community and often in clinical settings.”

Nolan said Ollie has been a “hero” in the way he responded to his diagnosis almost a year ago.

“The last time he was in the hospital he did his own pin prick. He’s just gone three and he was offering up his blood to the nurse. It’s the kids who give the parents strength, he is my little hero.

“When we used to change his cannula he would ball crying and I kept telling him he was so brave and now we’re at the stage where he’s just so good about it. He’s so brave. He shouldn’t have to be that way.

“This for me isn’t about wanting to jump the queue. I need the vaccine so I can keep my shoulder to the wheel, keep taking care of him and keep him safe.

“I think all of those working in clinical settings should take absolute priority, I’m not saying I should be first but I’m not okay with being last.”

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