It seems inevitable the provincial government will change its definition of “fully vaccinated” to include a third COVID-19 vaccine dose. With the benefit of QR code technology, that could be done pretty easily.

Opinion

It seems inevitable the provincial government will change its definition of “fully vaccinated” to include a third COVID-19 vaccine dose. With the benefit of QR code technology, that could be done pretty easily.

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, said this week there are no immediate plans to change the definition as it relates to provincial public-health orders. But she said it hasn’t been ruled out.

Right now, Manitobans are required to prove they have at least two doses of the vaccine to enter public places such as bars, restaurants, movie theatres and gyms. In most cases, patrons must show their government-issued QR codes (either on their mobile device or hard copy wallet card). That technology allows the province to change the definition of “fully” vaccinated without issuing new codes.

“Manitoba’s card was designed so that if the definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ changed (e.g. boosters or a different vaccine), then the QR code (physical or digital) would continue to be valid and a replacement is not required,” a provincial spokesperson confirmed in a statement.

“Fully vaccinated” could be defined as anyone with an up-to-date vaccine status. That could vary based on age, or the timing of when someone received their second shot. The information could be updated automatically on individual QR codes and displayed when scanned.

That flexibility would be important because not everyone is eligible for a third dose, depending on age or when they received their second shot. Some people are just getting their second dose now, or plan to in the coming weeks. Those who do will have good protection against the coronavirus for weeks to come.

Being up to date on vaccines could mean a recent second dose or a third shot after a certain period of time, such as six months. Under that scenario, it would be up to individuals to get their booster dose within the prescribed period. Failure to do so would show up on their codes.

It wouldn’t be difficult to program, since the province’s database contains the vaccination dates of all Manitobans.

Given that technology, public health could phase in third-dose requirements based on age to reflect the risk of severe illness. Since older Manitobans are at greater risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, the province could start with a requirement that everyone over a certain age (such as 50 or 60) must get a third dose six months after a second shot to be considered fully vaccinated. Those under 18, who are still not eligible for a third shot, could be considered up to date after two.

It’s unlikely proof-of-vaccination requirements will be eliminated any time soon. Vaccine data in Manitoba, Canada and around the world continues to show that fully vaccinated people — especially those with a third dose — are less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 than those who are unvaccinated.

Vaccines don’t protect nearly as well against infection from the Omicron variant compared with previous strains. However, over the past six weeks in Manitoba, the unvaccinated were still three times more likely to end up in hospital and 11 times more likely to require critical care than those with at least two doses. Between Nov. 22 and Jan. 2, people with two doses were four times more likely to end up in hospital than those with three shots.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. released a new report Thursday that showed unvaccinated Americans age 50-64 were 44 times more likely to be hospitalized than those with a third dose. The hospitalization rate for unvaccinated people over the age of 65 was 49 times higher than those with the third shot.

The province would likely give Manitobans advance warning before changing the definition of fully vaccinated. As of Friday, only 37 per cent of eligible Manitobans had received a third shot. That number would likely climb rapidly if a third dose was required to be fully immunized. Given the impact third doses have on preventing hospitalizations and death (and the likelihood of more unpredictable variants in the future), updating the definition would seem like the next logical step in the fight against COVID-19.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.