The conventional wisdom behind proof-of-vaccination mandates is they're supposed to be a temporary measure.
They're designed to convince enough people to get immunized against COVID-19 so government can ditch them sooner rather than later. As recently as early July, public-health officials were projecting close to 90 per cent of Manitobans over the age of 12 would be fully vaccinated by the end of September.
That no longer appears likely. Manitoba would be lucky to hit the 80 per cent mark by the end of this month. Which means flashing a QR code to get into a bar, restaurant, library or hockey game will be around for some time.
Part of the reason for that is infectious-disease experts don’t know what percentage of the population needs to be inoculated to return to post-pandemic normalcy. That’s not a failure of science. Scientists only know what they can measure and analyze. SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus, it’s mutating rapidly (as viruses do) and it’s becoming significantly more contagious. It will be some time before we know what level of vaccination will be required to eliminate all restrictions, including vaccine mandates.
Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table estimated this week that 85 per cent of the eligible population (those over 12) have to be fully immunized to avoid overwhelming hospitals this fall. Vaccination rates will likely need to be above that level to return to post-pandemic normalcy.
Manitoba has fully immunized 77 per cent of its eligible population. The number is less impressive when the entire population is included: just under 67 per cent of Manitobans have had both shots. That means roughly 459,000 Manitobans are not fully immunized (about 68,000 of those have received one dose).
That’s a lot of unvaccinated people. It’s far too many to lift existing restrictions (including masks in indoor public places) and allow people to frequent public places without proof of vaccination.
There has been a small uptick in first doses since the province announced the vaccine mandate a week ago. In the two weeks prior to the announcement, first-dose vaccines were rising about half a percentage point a week among eligible Manitobans. Over the past week, it’s increased almost a full percentage point (from 81.7 to 82.5 per cent).
Vaccines are working. The number of COVID-19 deaths in Manitoba has plummeted since the beginning of the vaccine rollout, from a monthly high of 350 in December to 11 new deaths in August. The death toll has dropped every month since January, except for a slight increase in May and June during the third wave. New deaths fell nearly two-thirds in July compared with the previous month, and another two-thirds in August (even with the wider circulation of the delta variant and fewer public-health restrictions than in the spring). Hospitalizations and ICU admissions are way down and the vast majority of those who require a hospital bed are not immunized. The effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine is nothing short of spectacular.
The challenge now isn’t so much scientific as it is sociological: how to free enough Manitobans from the hypnotic forces of misinformation and indoctrination to boost vaccine rates above 85 per cent. No one really knows how to do that. It seems everyone knows someone in that category — a friend, a relative or a neighbour who has been influenced by (or considers themselves to be) an amateur vaccine scientist who has "done their research on the internet."
Some have fallen so deep into that rabbit hole they probably can't be rescued. However, there are probably some willing to start following real science, including the incontrovertible evidence that vaccines are safe, effective and the only way out of the pandemic.
In the meantime, unless there's an unexpected surge in vaccine uptake, immunization mandates will likely be in place well into 2022. They’re the only realistic option that allows the vast majority of society to resume their lives.
The mandates won’t be lifted until a sizable portion of the unvaccinated decide they want to rejoin the human race.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.