By Breanna Tugaga Rogers, Te Rito journalism cadet
Some members of the disabled and immunocompromised community do not favour a mask mandate for all as those with hidden disabilities cannot wear one without negatively impacting their health.
The Government earlier this month announced it would provide free masks and rapid antigen test (RAT) kits as cases were surging across the country at the time but stopped short of tightening mask rules.
Peter Reynolds, chief executive of NZ Disability Support Services Network, said they actively encourage anybody who can wear a mask to do so, however, the system needs to be flexible enough so that it recognises people with legitimate reasons who cannot wear a mask.
"We're not particularly supportive of some mandate that says, 'everybody has got to wear a mask' full stop because from a disability perspective that's just not realistic," Reynolds told Newshub.
Reynolds stated that some people have health conditions, anxieties or mental health issues that make it risky for them to put a mask on for any period of time.
"We need to appreciate that some disabled people have disabilities that affect their breathing so it may be medically inappropriate for them to mask up. For some people the nature of their physical disability is such that they can't put a mask on or take it off, for example, if they're a wheelchair-bound tetraplegic," Reynolds said.
Mikey Brenndorfer, a healthcare worker who is disabled and has chronic health issues, said he's disappointed with the Government's current response.
"We're actually being left out here to face an impending COVID spike with minimal, actual precautions being supported by the Government around this," Brenndorfer told Newshub.
As someone who needs to take extra precautions going about his daily life, Brenndorfer adds, "It's wild to me that we're not looking at increasing our restrictions and moving back to that red light setting which we always said we would, based on the overwhelming of the healthcare system, which is where we're at right now".
Chief executive of Disabled Persons Assembly NZ Prudence Walker told Newshub that disabled and immunocompromised people are being put at risk by others not taking precautions and wearing masks when they can.
"Essentially we'd like to see everyone who can wear a mask, wearing one, while understanding that for some people it is just not possible," Walker said.
Walker also said that this COVID-19 wave is a huge concern for many in the disabled and immunocompromised community and that those with hidden disabilities who have mask exemptions have often faced harassment and abuse.
"We know of people who are isolating themselves, some to the point of literally not leaving their homes because of the climb in cases and the fear of the impact COVID may have on them," Walker said.
For both Reynolds and Walker, the bigger concern for their community is our overwhelmed healthcare system and staff shortages due to the COVID-19 and winter illness spike.
“The current pressure on our hospitals means that some people are not getting the surgeries they need. For some people this means remaining in extreme pain, for others, the delay in treatment can have long-lasting implications," Walker told Newshub.
Reynolds said most disabled and immunocompromised people are in need of support services on a regular basis, and they're currently struggling when staff are unable to work due to testing positive and having to isolate themselves.
"It's pretty tough out there," Reynolds said, "there's not only a shortage but those left to make up the difference are feeling incredibly stressed and burnt out. The whole system is really fragile so that's a far more important issue just at the second."
Walker told Newshub, "everyone needs to do everything we can to stop our hospitals from being over capacity. This includes everyone who is able to wear a mask, wearing one".
Deputy chief executive of Whaikaha - Ministry of Disabled People - Amanda Bleckman told Newshub that about 1.2 million disabled New Zealanders face risks from COVID-19 in terms of transmission and the long-term outcomes of testing positive.
"Whaikaha is working closely with the Ministry of Health and other government agencies to support disabled people and their carers accessing masks, RATs and PPE," Bleckmann said in response to the Government's latest mask announcement.