VANCOUVER -- With the province’s ever-evolving vaccination rollout changing seemingly by the day, British Columbians with serious health conditions feared being forgotten. Now, they are delighted to be receiving invitations to roll up their sleeves the morning after their group was announced as a priority.

The provincial government had said weeks ago that clinically vulnerable people would be prioritized ahead of their age groups, but it was unclear where they’d be in the queue as first responders, teachers and other essential workers also jockeyed for priority. Tuesday, the province announced letters would be arriving giving special authorization for the vaccine. 

"I started crying because that just means so much relief for me and my community, all those people that are immunocompromised across B.C.” said Eileen Davidson, breaking again into tears.

The 35 year-old mother has rheumatoid arthritis, and has experienced medical setbacks and flare-ups in the past year as she stays home as much as possible. She’s more fatigued and has reduced mobility as a result of less exercise. Every time she’s left her home has meant a risk that she could contract a virus that could end her life.

“A respiratory infection is actually a main cause of death for people with inflammatory arthritis, so the whole pandemic has been absolutely terrifying and to get this piece of paper, it says to me, 'We see you, we hear you, we're here to help you,'” she told CTV News.

“People with (certain) health conditions or on (specified) treatments may have an increased chance of serious illness from COVID-19 and have been identified as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable,’” reads the letter, which invites the recipient to book through their local health authority starting Monday.

Starting April 6, they can book appointments using a centralized provincial website, but recipients are all asked to bring their authorization letter when they get the shot.

“Patients in these high risk categories are basically being contacted as we speak; a letter has gone out to 200,000 of them,” said Dr. Penny Ballem, who oversees the immunization rollout in B.C. “Some of them have already been vaccinated because they're in the age cohorts that have already moved through.”

Behind the scenes advocacy was critical

Advocates say it took a lot of hard work and lobbying for those with the identified medical conditions to be moved to the front of the line. Among the eligible are those with organ transplants, those undergoing cancer treatment, those who have severe respiratory conditions or kidney disease, those who have rare blood diseases, those who are diabetics on insulin, those who have significant developmental disabilities, those who are pregnant and have heart disease, and those who have neuromuscular conditions or suppressed immune systems. 

“There was a lot of misinformation at the beginning,” said Paul Gauthier, founder and executive director of the Individualized Funding Resource Centre. “Were we going to be part of Phase 2 or would we be moved to Phase 3? When the rollout started, we were quite concerned that people with disabilities were going to be left behind and we started communicating with the Ministry of Health and with the local health authorities."

Gauthier, who requires extensive care for multiple sclerosis, is relieved and grateful that public health officials took advocates’ concerns seriously and acted on them. He says the Ministry of Health has been in touch with various organizations, non-profits and agencies that provide supports and services to the disability community. The ministry has been gathering contact information and patient lists in the process, he said.

“Government can’t know everything; they need to work with people like myself and other organizations and individuals that know what’s going on,” said Gauthier. “We know what’s going on.”

Plans for those not on the list

Inevitably, there will be some people who don’t get the vaccination invitation and feel they should. Officials are asking them to wait until April 15 to see if they receive a letter. If not, they can call the provincial call centre, which is slated to open April 6, to confirm they’re on the clinically extremely vulnerable list.

If they’re not on the list, officials ask that they call their doctor or a nurse practitioner to determine if they’re eligible.

For those who’ve recently moved or don’t have a personal health number, the instructions are to call your family doctor or specialists who treat your condition.

For Davidson, having the letter in her hands isn’t just the next step in immunization and the return to a more normal life, it’s a validation of her struggles with an invisible illness.

“I'm 35 and I live with an autoimmune disease that makes me immunocompromised and not everyone will believe you when you tell them,” she said. “It feels good to be listened to … A lot of people have worked hard to make this happen and my heart goes out to those people. Thank you for everything you've done."