Fatima Rosario doesn’t know what to do. The Brampton mother of two fears for the worst each time her eldest son leaves for work.
No matter how much she wishes he could stay home, it just isn’t an option for him. Bills need to be paid and mouths need to be fed, despite the growing risk COVID-19 poses to young people.
Rosario’s son, 19, lives with her and his sister, 16. Their apartment is in a hot spot, as are many of his coworkers’, Rosario said. In the wake of Emily Viegas’ death in Brampton at just 13 years old, Rosario said she’s never felt more terrified for him.
Experts stress that COVID-19 typically results in less serious illnesses in children and young adults, and the death of a child is exceedingly rare. Still, for Rosario and other Brampton parents like her, news of Viegas’s death has crystallized just how fast, and young, COVID-19 can kill.
“If it can happen to her, it can happen to my son,” she said. “When I read about Emily, I realized you can get sick in the blink of an eye. It made me even more stressed than I already was.”
Brampton Coun. Martin Medeiros (Wards 3 and 4) said he’s heard from many parents worried for their kids’ health. Medeiros, a father himself, says he’s just as afraid. “I’m second-guessing everything now,” he said, adding he’s become “careful and cautious” about whether even to let his children, 16 and 12, go for brief trips outside.
“What happened to that poor little girl hits home in every way,” he said. “It reflects the inadequate health system that we have here in Brampton. It’s something we’ve been crying and screaming about for the last 15 years.”
Medeiros’ wards, like all of Brampton, are COVID-19 hot spots. The city now has the highest COVID-19 positivity rates in the province — 22.4 per cent of patient samples were testing positive as of last week, more than double the provincial average, which itself recently reached a record high.
According to Dr. Amit Arya, a physician who worked in Peel for most of the pandemic, one key issue is the large number of essential workers who can’t afford to take time off. Most people he’s seen get sick from COVID-19 in the city are either an essential worker, or a family member of an essential worker.
“We know that COVID-19 doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Arya told the Star last week. “Brampton has so many factories, warehouses, food services and people working in transit and front-line health care. These are people who can’t stay home.”
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Rosario said she asked her son if he could take time off work at a large Brampton grocery store.
“He said, ‘Mom, they don’t want to pay for sick days, and I need a job,’” Rosario said. “Of course, he does — we are not rich. He has to pay bills and for his college.”
All that anxiety is made worse by what Rosario sees over and over in her community — people getting sick and dying of COVID-19.
“I have so many stories,” she said. One friend’s mother died of COVID four days ago, she said. She was fine, at first, then her oxygen level suddenly dropped. Now, another friend has just developed symptoms — she ostensibly got it from her father or sister, who both became infected this month.
“The father developed pneumonia as well,” she said. “His wife is just losing it. We’re all so scared.”
Arya said Brampton’s high case counts and relatively few avenues for vaccination show a failure to ensure equitable vaccine distribution across the province.
Brampton has only nine vaccine-carrying pharmacies per 100,000 people. On the other end of the spectrum, Arya pointed out, is Kingston with about 26 pharmacies for the same amount of people. Last week, Kingston had a positivity rate of less than one per cent.
(Kingston was one of three Ontario health units, along with Toronto and Windsor-Essex, that were part of the province’s initial pharmacy pilot project).
Arya said he doesn’t think the situation in Brampton would be so dire if early intervention had taken place.
“If the province had followed what its own scientists were recommending back in February regarding the vaccine rollout, maybe things wouldn’t be so bad,” he said. “The fire trucks have to go where the fire is burning.”
Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn
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