Although they live together, Sophia Malthus will have to find new carers to replace her own unvaccinated mother – expanding her bubble beyond her desire or control

Sophia Malthus has been taking lockdown measures very seriously.

After a spinal cord injury from a horse-riding accident five years ago left her quadriplegic, the 24-year-old has to be particularly mindful of the virus that continues to spread across Auckland.

Illnesses affecting the respiratory system can be especially dangerous to spinal cord injury survivors, who may have an impeded ability to independently breathe, swallow or cough and decreased overall immunity. Respiratory infections kill more spinal cord survivors than any other cause.

So whenever lockdown has been called over the last two years, Malthus has been diligent in keeping her bubble small and her level of risk low.

“Since this lockdown began, I have’t been on any picnics – I’ve left the house twice,” she said. Living with her parents and with her mum as one of her main paid carers, she has been able to keep her bubble tight and controlled to reduce the chance of infection coming in from outside.

But a clarification made by the Ministry of Health to her carer agency yesterday puts her ability to keep doing that in doubt.

She learned that by next week, when healthcare workers are required to be vaccinated, the agency will be obligated to make a new plan and replace her mother with other carers.

Malthus’ mother is unvaccinated for medical reasons, and despite a letter from her GP saying so, she is yet to receive Ministry of Health confirmation to be exempt from the mandate.

And with the mandate coming into force next week, Malthus worries she will be caught short and forced to inflate her bubble well beyond her comfort zone.

With her mother doing five 12-hour shifts across the week, replacing her would likely require a number of new carers.

“It’s really scaring me, because in all of the lockdowns we’ve been in before we just automatically went into a really tight bubble,” she said. “I live with my parents – my stepdad quickly moved to working from home. And we have three other carers coming in, but they were also in really tight bubbles, and I really trust them.”

But now a rule that is presumably in place to protect her opens her up to higher risk.

“This mandate that’s intended to protect me, pretty much doubles my exposure to Covid,” she said. “I’ll have two or three new carers coming into the house and they all have their own families that they live with, and everybody wants to go back to work – so my bubble would be bigger than everybody else’s bubble.”

The mandate leaves her in the absurd position in which she still lives with her mother, but cannot get ACC funding for her to act in the role as her carer because of the risk she poses on paper by being near her own daughter.

“It makes no sense,” said Malthus. “I could understand the logic if she was coming in from another household.” And she’s sure she isn’t the only one affected by the rule. Many in the disabled community have members of their households who act as carers – especially during the pandemic, when keeping bubbles manageable has become a part of life.

“I am very scared for myself and the other people with disabilities who had family members working to reduce their bubble and risk,” Malthus said.

The solution, she suggests, lies in handing disabled people some more of the decision-making authority in their own lives.

“Disabled people should be able to decide who cares for us,” she said. “The Government can’t be expected to go through every single person case by case.”

And short of doing that, it seems the blanket rule of the vaccine mandate for health workers has created at least one counter-intuitive situation.

The Ministry of Health’s mandate update to the Covid order states health and disability workers must receive their first dose of the vaccine by November 15, 2021, and be fully vaccinated by January 1, 2022.

“A high rate of vaccinations will help to protect staff from getting sick and passing Covid-19 onto others,” the Ministry of Health website states following details on the order.

This clearly doesn’t apply to Malthus’ mother, who will be sharing her home whether she is carer or not. But in a rollout of mandates in which time has been very much of the essence, situations like that of Malthus and her mother seem to have been overlooked.

“While most people working in these sectors are already fully or partially vaccinated we can’t leave anything to chance and are making it mandatory,” Minister for Covid Response Chris Hipkins said at the announcement of the mandate for health and disability sector workers at the beginning of last month.

“It’s not an easy decision, but we need the people who work with vulnerable communities who haven’t yet been vaccinated to take this extra step.

Hipkins made the announcement almost a month ago, but Malthus said her carer agency at first said her mother wouldn’t be affected. It was only this week that the agency came back to the Malthus family and told them that actually, they did come under the order.

And with first doses needed next week, there isn’t a lot of time for them to figure out another plan.

At this point, all Malthus can really do is hope for a change of heart by the Ministry of Health.

“I’m at a loss for what to do,” she said.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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