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‘You don’t need to tell us how dangerous this dreadful virus still is’: The NI women who have been shielding since last March

Before quibbling about having to self-isolate for a few days, spare a thought for these two local women who’ve been shielding since March of last year

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Shielding: Emmy Kelly. Credit: Stephen Hamilton

Shielding: Emmy Kelly. Credit: Stephen Hamilton

Stephen Hamilton

Michaela Hollywood. Credit: Stephen Hamilton

Michaela Hollywood. Credit: Stephen Hamilton

Stephen Hamilton

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Shielding: Emmy Kelly. Credit: Stephen Hamilton

Just a few weeks ago, family doctors warned that patients showing signs of Covid-19 were deliberately avoiding being tested for the virus.

The prospect of isolating at home, and the disruption that follows, means many people are opting against a diagnosis.

More recently, holiday plans were plunged into chaos after the Department of Health announced the Balearic Islands were to be moved to the amber list for travel.

This means anyone returning from the region who is not double-jabbed will have to self-isolate for 10 days.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

The inconvenience caused by this is such that many people are cancelling their holidays rather than spend a week-and-a-half stuck at home after they get back.

So, spare a thought for the thousands of people shielding from the virus since it barrelled its way into Northern Ireland in March last year.

The vaccination programme has brought relief from the ravages of Covid-19 for most people, and proposals to get rid of the most basic public health measures, such as face coverings and social distancing, would suggest the pandemic is all but over.

But the fact is, there are still those for whom the virus remains a real and present danger.

For Emmy Kelly and her family, the arrival of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland meant they had to retreat to their home in February last year.

“I have psoriatic arthritis, but it’s a very complex case and I’m severely immunocompromised,” she said.

“I’ve had one dose of the vaccine so far. I had to wait quite a long time to get it because I was very unwell.

“But my consultant has told me that even when I get the
second dose, I will have to continue shielding because it’s very unlikely that the vaccine will work for me.”

Living with an autoimmune disease, 39-year-old Emmy, who has three children aged 12, 14 and 19, is used to the fact that she is more at risk from common illnesses that most people can shrug off.

“If I get a cold, it goes straight to my chest and turns into pneumonia,” she explained.

“We have to be so careful. We take a lot of extra precautions over the winter and the whole family knows that if they have sniffles, they just don’t come to the house.

“Being careful is a way of life, but doing it during a pandemic has been at a whole other level.”

The family made the decision to begin shielding in February, before lockdown was officially announced.

Emmy’s medical conditions meant that even when shielding was paused, she and her family had to remain on high alert, hidden away from the virus.

It has been almost 500 days of endurance that has pushed them all to the limit.

She said: “This isn’t how I want to live. It certainly isn’t the life I want for my children or my two-year-old granddaughter, who lives with us, but we don’t have any other choice.

“It has been so, so tough. It has been tough for me but even harder for the children.

“People don’t understand that when someone in a household has to shield, everyone has to shield.

“My children haven’t been to school since last February.

“Thankfully, the school has been really supportive and has done everything it can to help us with remote learning, but it still hasn’t been easy.

“Basically, the principal spoke to us and said there would be cases of Covid in the school in a matter of weeks, so it was safer for the kids not to be in school.

“My youngest son is going into second year and he’s never been in the building. He doesn’t even have a uniform.

“The internet has been our saviour through all of this because it means the boys have been able to keep in touch with their friends.

“The mental toll of shielding has been the hardest part of all of this. My son has actually been suicidal three times through all of this, so we had to get him counselling.

“He was terrified of Covid and he was terrified of me getting Covid. It was so difficult because we were trying to keep the information age-appropriate, but it was all over the news.”

Emmy, who lives in Armagh, continued: “The practicalities of shielding have been so hard.

“My son has a dairy allergy, which means that supermarket deliveries aren’t an option because of all the substitutions they send.

“My partner made the decision that he would go and get food for us, and that meant he was coming back, stripping off and scrubbing himself in the shower.”

In June last year, as case numbers began to drop, the advice to shield was paused.

With it went much of the protection and support for people deemed clinically extremely vulnerable.

The continuing removal of public health measures in the face of spiralling cases has left many people terrified.

Michaela Hollywood (31), who has spinal muscular atrophy, feels more at risk than ever.

While she has had both vaccinations, her mum is unable to get the jab and Michaela is severely restricted in the precautions she can take to keep herself safe.

“I’ve been shielding since the very start. It’s coming up to 500 days and it’s becoming increasingly tough,” she said.

“People think because you are shielding that you are automatically safe, but that isn’t the case.

“I will always need care. I can’t as much as scratch my own nose, so I have carers constantly coming in and out. That means I’m coming into contact with 10 or 12 households a day.

“People don’t understand that when transmission gets to the levels it’s at now, the virus comes into the house whether you like it or not. We have had a few scares over the months where we thought we might have the virus, which was terrifying.

“That’s why it’s so frustrating when people say the virus won’t affect them.

“First of all, no one can give them any guarantee there isn’t something underlying that won’t be badly affected if they get the virus. Secondly, following advice that will keep others safe is the right thing to do.

“Being vulnerable to Covid affects every part of your life. I started a new job during the pandemic and I’ve never actually met my colleagues.

“I’ve only been out of the house once since shielding started and that was to go and get an ice cream.

“Even then I stayed in the car and my PA went into the shop and got the ice cream.

“It’s very isolating and it’s made even more difficult when the Government’s advice is for people who are vulnerable to avoid anyone who hasn’t had two doses [of the vaccine].

“Do they think we have magic radars? How am I supposed to know who has had two vaccines?

“Even my staff don’t have to tell me if they’ve been vaccinated. They might offer up that information, but I would never ask them for it because it’s their personal choice.

“It was getting to the stage where I was starting to think about maybe venturing back out again, [but] it’s all kicking off again and it isn’t safe for me to stop shielding.”

Sadly, Emmy and Michaela’s experiences are far from unique.

In fact, so many people are still shielding from Covid-19 that Emmy set up and runs the Northern Ireland Shield Us support group, which has more than 1,000 members.

She explained: “The lack of understanding has been scary. We have members who have taken tribunals because their employers were forcing them to come into work. We’ve had members who have been threatened with fines for keeping their children at home and out of school.

“We offer crisis mental health counselling because so many people are struggling so much.

“To be honest, shielders feel totally forgotten and it has only become worse since shielding was paused.

“With the way case rates are going, I don’t even know if it will be safe for my children to go to school in September.

“At the moment, we’re basically being told to stay at home or die, but treating people like this isn’t okay.

“Nobody chooses to live like this, but the simple fact is we don’t have any choice. It really is a matter of life and death.”

Search for the Shield Us NI Facebook group for information or support relating to shielding


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