When the province announces the next phase of its pandemic reopening plan, it should give priority to fully vaccinated people when easing restrictions.
Doing so would serve two purposes: allow for the safe reopening of some indoor places and provide a powerful incentive for people to get immunized. Both are critical objectives at this point in the pandemic.
It’s been two weeks — a full incubation period — since Manitoba eased public-health restrictions under the province’s summer reopening plan. As expected, the modest changes did not reverse the trend of declining COVID-19 case numbers or hospitalizations. The combination of strict measures and growing vaccination rates drove down infections and hospital admissions.
It has been a month since a COVID-19 patient was airlifted out of the province for treatment.
The province needs to do two things: boost immunization take–up and prevent unvaccinated people from spreading their droplets, particularly indoors, where the virus is more easily transmitted.
For that reason, the province says it plans to ease restrictions earlier than planned, likely next week. That's good news.
The biggest challenge now is getting vaccination rates to a level that will allow the economy to reopen permanently. There’s no point lifting restrictions if they have to be reinstated again. Doing so would just mean more avoidable illness and death.
That is a real possibility if too many unvaccinated people are allowed to congregate, especially with the more contagious delta variant in circulation.
The province needs to do two things: boost immunization take-up and prevent unvaccinated people from spreading their droplets, particularly indoors, where the virus is more easily transmitted.
What better way to do that than to give priority to fully immunized people when lifting restrictions?
Manitoba’s vaccination rates over the past month have been stellar. However, the fact remains that this province — and the rest of Canada — are still below levels most experts say need to be reached to return to normal life.
Almost 76 per cent of Manitobans over the age of 12 have at least one dose of the vaccine and 55 per cent have two. The take-up for Manitobans over age 60 is even better: more than 90 per cent have received at least one dose and more than 80 per cent of them have a second. People over 60, the highest risk group, are well protected.
But those under 40 still have a long way to go. Only two-thirds of people in their 20s and 30s have at least one dose. Of those who do, fewer than two-thirds have a second. That leaves a lot of young people unprotected.
The province could allow indoor household visits for people with two shots. That might be difficult to enforce, but it would be similar to challenges around previous household–visit rules.
Only 47 per cent of Manitobans aged 10 to 19 have at least one dose (that’s how the province presents that age cohort, even though the vaccines aren't available to children under the age of 12 at this point) and 39 per cent of them are fully immunized. Younger people are at a lower risk of severe illness from COVID-19, but they can still spread the virus.
Most experts say well over 80 per cent of people age 12 and up require both shots for life to return to normal. The real number is probably closer to 85 or 90 per cent.
The problem is, the rate at which Manitobans are getting vaccinated has slowed over the past week. The percentage of people with at least one dose is growing by only a quarter of a percentage point a day. Even the take-up for second doses has dropped off in July. It needs a kick-start.
Giving fully immunized Manitobans more freedoms may be the best way to do that. The province could allow indoor household visits for people with two shots. That might be difficult to enforce, but it would be similar to challenges around previous household-visit rules.
The province could reopen places such as movie theatres, museums, art galleries and casinos to fully vaccinated people. Those rules already apply in some settings, including large-scale sporting events and indoor dining where people don’t reside together. Expanding it would allow businesses and not-for-profits to reopen safely, while encouraging more people to get vaccinated. It would kill two birds with one stone.
The longer it takes to fully immunize more than 80 per cent of eligible Manitobans, the greater the risk of a significant fourth wave.
The province should use every carrot and stick it has to avoid that.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.