For months, public health officials have been stressing the importance of the COVID-19 booster shot, especially as we deal with subsequent waves driven by Omicron and its variants.
Manitoba, however, continues to lag when it comes to getting that third vaccine dose. Only slightly more than half of all Manitobans aged 12 and up who are eligible for a COVID-19 booster have received one. Around 54 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and up have received their third dose, or 47.5 per cent of the total population. Eighty-one per cent of the population has received two doses.
Earlier this month, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, once again underlined the importance of Canadians getting that third shot into their arms.
"We would love to get people mobilized once again, like they did the first round and the second round, to get that booster dose," she said. "We’re trying to do that once again, and give it another shot, as it were."
While Manitobans do seem less enthusiastic about shot number three as compared to shots one and two based on uptake numbers, it’s hard to blame them. The current stage of the Stefanson government’s pandemic response seems to be confined to pretending the pandemic is over — including baffling choices such as dropping mask and vaccine mandates and making pandemic data difficult to access — so it’s little wonder the public is viewing the third shot with considerably less enthusiasm than the first two.
If the pandemic is out of sight as far as the government is concerned, it logically follows that it’s also out of mind for many people. And this is a problem, especially since the protection offered by the first two jabs — now receding in the rear-view for many Manitobans — has necessarily started to wane.
It’s worth thinking, too, about what this ambivalence to boosters might mean in an endemic world, when we might require annual COVID-19 vaccinations to combat new variants, much the same as we do with influenza.
Unfortunately, annual flu-shot numbers paint a similar picture of indifference. Despite being widely available at pharmacies at no charge — and despite annual campaigns promoting their importance, efficacy and availability — not enough Manitobans bother to get one.
In the 2019-20 flu season, only 22 per cent of Manitobans got vaccinated for influenza, up from just 20 per cent the season before.
Vaccinations — including booster shots — need to remain on the front burner. Our hospitals — and the overworked, understaffed and generally burned-out health-care professionals staffing them — still depend on them, as do the immunocompromised and otherwise at-risk among our families and friends.
What’s interesting, and certainly should be taken into account by Manitoba’s public-health officials, is that many people are willing to get the third shot — 83 per cent of people in the Prairies, for example, according to Statistics Canada — but that intention has not translated into rolled-up-sleeves action.
To that end, Manitoba would do well to implement a booster-promotion campaign to help build the kind of momentum we saw when vaccines were first rolled out. But it’s going to take more than the promise of an ‘I’m COVID-19 Boosted’ sticker.
While it’s clear there’s very little likelihood the current government will entertain a return to mandated masks and/or proof of vaccination, there’s no disputing such measures were key motivators during the initial enthusiastic uptake of COVID-19 vaccinations.
It’s government’s job to nudge Manitoba’s vaccine fence-sitters into the booster-shot line. And continuing to pretend COVID-19 is no longer among us is not a winning strategy in that regard.