I want to share my family's experience with Covid in the Philippines. By sharing my story, I hope those of you who have second thoughts, doubts or hesitations about getting the vaccine may think about getting the jab sooner rather than later.
Since the pandemic started, part of my work as a general practitioner (GP) in the frontline was treating and swabbing patients with respiratory or viral illnesses in the "red zone" of Waiuku Health Centre.
Every time I put on my PPE, I would wish there was something in the medicine cabinet that I could take to protect me, my family, my healthcare team and my friends from getting Covid.
The vaccine became available for us frontliners in March of this year. I also experienced the hesitancy of getting the vaccine. Initially, I had the same questions you may also have in your mind right now.
Will I have bad side effects? Will I die? What will be the effects of the vaccine in the long term? However, I also wondered: if the vaccine is there to help us protect ourselves, why wouldn't I take it? So, after weighing up the benefits vs risks and considering the available evidence, I decided to get vaccinated.
Since then, I have been watching the numbers in other countries to find out how much vaccination can protect us. Although data from other countries showed the trend that vaccination protects people from developing severe Covid, the numbers may not necessarily mean anything at a personal level. Knowing the numbers does not necessarily motivate some of us to get vaccinated urgently. When Covid hits home, only then do you start to see for yourself who survives and who doesn't. This is why I would like to share my family's experience with you.
Recently my family (father, mother, and two nephews who live with them) have contracted Covid. My father, 75 years old, has medical comorbidities, including hypertension and atrial fibrillation. He developed a cough, fever, and shortness of breath. My sister brought him to a public hospital where he waited overnight for his Covid test results in a holding area in a tent outside the hospital building. The next day, August 31, we were fortunate to find a private hospital for him. My father needed oxygen supplementation. He improved and was discharged 14 days later.
Two days after my father was admitted to the hospital, my mother, who was symptomatic and tested positive for Covid, was also put on a waiting list. We had to purchase a pulse oximeter and oxygen tank to support her breathing at home as her oxygen saturation (O2sat) was dropping. When space became available, she was finally admitted to the hospital with her O2sat already at around 84 per cent. My mother was 74 years old, and was taking oral medications for hypertension and diabetes. She received all the treatment for Covid, similar to what would be given here in NZ for moderate-severe Covid. Despite the available treatment, she continued to deteriorate over the next few days, requiring intubation and ICU admission. She eventually passed away on September 14.
My nephews: 27 years old with scoliosis and a mental health condition, and 23 years old with a history of asthma, were both unvaccinated. The local government advised them to quarantine at home with the rest of the family. They were managed at home by their mother, my sister, who had a first dose of the Sinovac vaccine. They both needed oxygen supplementation at home as their O2sat also fell below 95 per cent, with one of them going as low as 89 per cent.
The remaining four members in the household developed mild symptoms (presumed to be Covid): two of them (17 yo/male and 24 yo/male) were unvaccinated. The other two (41 yo/male and 20yo/female) were vaccinated with a first dose of Sinovac.
What were the outcomes after two weeks? My father, who had a dose of the vaccine, survived moderate Covid. My vaccinated sister remained asymptomatic. My vaccinated niece and 41-year-old extended family member also recovered from mild Covid. While the four unvaccinated family members recovered, two needed home oxygen supplementation.
Unfortunately, in the case of my mother, Covid caught up with her before she could get her vaccination and she didn't survive. My mother was vaccine-hesitant in the beginning because she feared that she would get adverse effects. When she finally decided to go for her vaccination, it did not happen because the centre ran out of vaccines. Sadly, she contracted Covid before her next appointment.
After we lost our mother, a couple of questions that continue to play in my mind are: had she been vaccinated, would it have given her a fighting chance to survive? Would it be a different scenario if she was here in New Zealand? Not only do we have vaccines available now; we also have the luxury of time to get vaccinated while our Covid cases are still low.
An auntie, 68 years old, has Myasthenia gravis but had a dose of Moderna vaccine. She nursed both my sick parents at the hospital but didn't get Covid. Another auntie, 63 years old who has diabetes and who had completed Sinovac, also didn't get Covid after meeting with a symptomatic, unvaccinated dear friend whose husband unfortunately also died from Covid.
I know of friends here in Auckland whose family members in the Philippines were also recently affected by Covid. A friend's mum who is 72 with rheumatoid arthritis completed two doses of AstraZeneca, is now recovering from Covid. On the other hand, another friend's father, 83 years old, passed away from Covid on October 4. He was unvaccinated.
Now I don't need to look far away to see what's happening in other countries. Unfortunately, in my family's and friends' cases, the unvaccinated vulnerable family members were the ones we've lost. Our family members who had at least one dose, regardless of the vaccine, were protected or had better outcomes after contracting Covid.
Unknown to many of you, while NZ was in lockdown since mid-August, some of our Filipino community members here in NZ have been mourning the loss of loved ones back in the Philippines due to Covid. It is hard and painful, and I wouldn't wish this to happen to you and your families here in NZ.
Give yourselves and your whānau a fighting chance. Vaccines are within our reach. Give our healthcare system a fighting chance to deal with Covid by getting as many eligible family members vaccinated.
I am writing this in honor of my beloved mother, the late Lilia Gamboa.
Dr Lira Lecias GP, Waiuku Health Centre, Auckland