An estimated 24,000 Manitoba seniors over the age of 80 have yet to get a single shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, even as the age criteria for the life-saving jab is poised to dip below age of retirement.
As of Thursday, at least 30,950 Manitobans 80 or older had received one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to population data from Statistics Canada, that’s about 56 per cent of that age group.
"The more we can bring the vaccine to the people, as opposed to bringing the people to the vaccine, that’s going to be the best for those oldest age groups and, in particular, the ones who have not been vaccinated already," said Prof. Michelle Porter, director of the University of Manitoba Centre on Aging.
"It’s not because they’re hesitant. It’s not because they don’t want the vaccine. It’s all of these other logistical issues that are preventing them."
Statistics Canada estimates there are nearly 42,900 people living in Manitoba who are between the ages of 80 and 89. Based on that population estimate, just 48 per cent of seniors in that age group had received a first dose, as of Thursday.
People 80 or older became eligible for vaccination March 10. Roughly 80 per cent of Manitobans in their 90s have received one shot.
Porter said there are many reasons why uptake may be slower among older populations. However, she suspects a large number are waiting for the vaccine to be offered in a familiar setting, such as a doctor’s office or pharmacist.
"A lot of people in this age bracket, in contrast to younger people, they would be used to getting a flu shot every year, and so I think a lot of them want to do what they normally do, go to the same places that they normally go to," Porter said Thursday.
"So this unfamiliarity of going to a different place, it being done in a different way, I think is definitely an issue."
The Free Press requested the number of immunizations scheduled over the next three weeks for people age 70 and over, but a provincial spokesman said those figures were not ready to be shared publicly.
Appointments for those over 70 opened March 19.
"Certainly, for some seniors, navigating the website or the call centre can be very difficult. For other folks, they may have competing priorities, other things that are going on in life and it might be hard to get this to the top of the to–do list." – Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the provincial COVID–19 vaccine task force
While provincial public health officials have urged Manitobans to sign up to receive the vaccine as soon as eligible, the rollout has faced criticism for being inaccessible to some of the most elderly citizens.
Currently, most Manitobans can only get vaccinated at one of the province’s five "super site" clinics or a pop-up clinic staged in rural and remote communities.
For seniors living independently in rural Manitoba, that means co-ordinating travel to an urban centre with a vaccination clinic — sometimes hundreds of kilometres away — or waiting until a pop-up clinic opens in their community.
For others, it can mean relying and waiting on family members to be available to escort them to a clinic.
In February, the Free Press reported the daughter of a 95-year-old Winnipeg man, bedridden and too frail to leave his Osborne Village home, was forced to hire a stretcher service to transport her father to the clinic at the downtown RBC Convention Centre.
"The vaccine is free, but the whole process for someone going to get a vaccine, is definitely not free," Porter said. "We didn’t seem to have everything in place to begin with for this more challenging group to get vaccinated, these older age groups."
Porter said the risk associated with leaving home to go to a mass vaccination clinic and the sheer size of the facility may be enough to cause people to hold off on getting their shot.
"For our oldest citizens, it’s been a pretty daunting thought for people to have to travel to these super sites," Porter said.
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the provincial COVID-19 vaccine task force, said Manitoba is planning ways to improve access the vaccine for those who want it but face hurdles in getting the shot.
"Certainly, for some seniors, navigating the website or the call centre can be very difficult. For other folks, they may have competing priorities, other things that are going on in life and it might be hard to get this to the top of the to-do list," Reimer said during a media briefing Wednesday.
"We’re working on a variety of mechanisms."
Reimer also acknowledged language barriers, and even concerns about health coverage, may be delaying some eligible people from booking an appointment.
On Wednesday, the doctor said anyone who is living in Manitoba and eligible for the vaccine can receive it, regardless of immigration status, residency, or if they have a Manitoba Health card — and repeated the message in French and Spanish.
"Because there’s so many different reasons that people may not sign up right away, we need to make sure that we have many different approaches to try to address all of those different reasons," Reimer said.
She said the province hopes to use part of the next AstraZeneca/Covishield vaccine shipment, which is fridge-stable, to provide to people who can’t leave their homes, either in partnership with pharmacies or physicians, or through home care.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.