Two Kelowna families are among those impacted by a new proof of vaccination policy being rolled out at Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver this month.
Families staying at the facility were told this week everyone over the age of five staying at or visiting RMH must be vaccinated. The 73-bedroom home, operated by a charity, provides families with a place to stay while children get treated at the nearby BC Children's Hospital.
Families have until Jan. 31 to get at least one dose of the vaccine.
Brian Blakely’s son Andrew, 5, has been staying at RMH in Vancouver since July 2021 while he battles leukemia
Blakely and his wife are vaccinated, but the idea of vaccinating Andrew while he's in the middle of chemotherapy treatment is a non-starter.
“There are too many unknowns,” he said, explaining he doesn’t want to introduce “something new” to the cancer treatment regime.
“We have over the years, developed a treatment that cures leukemia for kids... And it's worked,” Blakely said, “Now you want to implement a new drug that's never been tested.”
Blakely said managers at RMH told him they would be allowed to stay if their doctor signs off an exemption. The family has frantically been trying to get a hold of their doctor, but has been unable to so far. Donations are being collected with a GoFundMe.
The BCCDC says there is “still uncertainty” whether COVID-19 vaccines are effective in adults and children with cancer or undergoing therapy for their cancer.
“Patients with active cancer or undergoing active cancer treatment seemed to be generally excluded from the COVID-19 vaccine trials,” the BCCDC said in guidance to doctors.
Blakely says his eight-year-old daughter hasn’t been vaccinated and will be unable to visit her brother until she is. The vaccine policy, and short notice of it, has created incredible stress for his family.
“Right now my wife isn't sleeping, she is stressed beyond, because we still don't have an answer back from the doctors if they’ll write the [exemption] letter for us.”
The pandemic aside, Blakely said their family has been extremely cautious about protecting Andrew. A common cold could threaten his life.
“We don't really socialize much there with them because he can't, he can't go anywhere. You know, we couldn’t even take him outdoors, bright lights or anything like that with Christmas, because it's a risk,” he said.
Blakely said RMH appears to have managed COVID well so far. “Like we all do what we do, but why are we forcing it now?”
STORY GAINS U.S. ATTENTION
Austin and Lindsay Furgason, also Kelowna residents, have been staying at RMH since October when their four-year-old son Jack started treatment for leukemia.
Both Austin and Lindsay have chosen to not be vaccinated.
Austin posted a video to Facebook on Tuesday of him confronting a manager at RMH over the vaccine policy. His story has since gained traction across North America, getting picked up by right-wing commentators in the U.S. including Steven Crowder and Jack Posobiec. A GoFundMe set up for the family has raised more than $60,000 for the Furgasons in less than a day and is rapidly growing.
Austin told Castanet News he’s not surprised his story resonated.
“I think it's something that really hits a lot of people because no matter what your beliefs are, or what country you're from, everybody donates to this place and everybody wants to help sick, dying kids,” he said.
Austin says his family loves living at RMH and they are heartbroken they are being asked to leave.
But regardless of the massive impact the move will take on his family, they won’t be getting vaccinated.
“The way I interpreted the Bible is that this is wrong. Because there's a lot of people in the Bible who said no to oppressive government, and I see the vaccine is like a tool of being used to oppress people,” he said.
He called the government’s vaccination efforts “creepy.”
“Everybody who wants to get vaccinated is vaccinated,” he continued. “It makes me not want to get it even more.”
With the exception of vaccination, Austin says his family has taken every step to avoid bringing any type of sickness into RMH due to the extreme vulnerability of its residents.
In a statement sent to Castanet, Ronald McDonald House said the vaccine policy was approved by the charity’s board in the recommendation of public health, “to ensure we meet the highest standards of health and safety and protect the vulnerable population we serve.”
“We appreciate that this policy will impact those who have made a decision not to vaccinate however, the overall health and welfare of all our residents is our primary concern,” the statement continued.
"We have informed all stakeholders of this decision including staff, volunteers and families and we are working with families during the grace period in order to understand their particular circumstances and support them in finding alternate accommodation arrangements if we are unable to accommodate them."
Every year, Vancouver's Ronald McDonald House helps more than 2,000 families. Around 30% of families come from the BC Interior with the rest from Vancouver Island and the north.
"Caring for families with sick children in a safe environment has always been our top priority at Ronald McDonald House BC & Yukon," the charity continued.
The National Cancer Institute in the U.S. says that people with cancer, particularly blood cancers like leukemia, are at higher risk of prolonged infection and death from COVID-19.
The provincial government has had a policy in place since Nov. 9 that requires anyone visiting a hospital to be vaccinated, although many exemptions for pediatric care and critical illness are available.