Vaccine uptake in Manitoba continues to grow at a snail’s pace despite the province’s immunization mandate announced last month. Without a significant increase, Manitoba would be lucky to avoid a serious fourth wave this fall.
It’s been just over a week since the province announced its new proof-of-vaccine rules to access public places such as bars, restaurants, movie theatres and museums.
Since then, the percentage of Manitobans over 12 with at least one dose has barely budged to 82.9 per cent from 81.7 per cent – about one-tenth of a percentage point a day. It’s marginally better than the growth rate prior to the announcement.
The percentage of eligible Manitobans with two doses has increased to 77.9 from 76.2 per cent during the same period.
Public health officials still don’t know what level of vaccination is required to achieve herd immunity, or to return to some level of post-pandemic normalcy.
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of the province’s vaccine task force, said it will have to be higher than 80 per cent. However, the exact figure is unknown because new and more contagious variants may come into play. We may never reach it.
"We might not be able to reach the true textbook herd immunity where the virus can’t circulate at all in our province," Reimer said Tuesday. "Instead, our goal may be to keep the numbers low enough that while the virus continues to circulate that we are able to continue to provide health care to everyone who needs it in Manitoba."
How low is "low enough?" Probably what we have right now: a few dozen cases a day, mostly among the unvaccinated. At that level, it appears hospitals can absorb the two dozen or so new admissions per week.
But with students returning to school this week and people moving indoors as the temperature falls, cases will certainly rise.
There’s no doubt having more than three-quarters of Manitobans over 12 fully vaccinated will provide most people with significant protection, including keeping the vast majority of them out of hospital. We’ve seen evidence of that all year. More than 95 per cent of Manitobans over 70 are fully vaccinated and almost 90 per cent of those in their 60s have both shots.
“Looking around the world, we know that there are many, many places where the virus will continue to circulate. This is going to be something that continues to be part of our lives in some way or another for a long time.” – Dr. Joss Reimer
It’s younger Manitobans who aren’t adequately protected. About 70 per cent of Manitobans in their 20s and 30s are fully vaccinated and 64 per cent of those aged 12 to 17 have both doses. That’s not high enough. There are also geographical pockets, such as the RM of Stanley (23 per cent) and Winkler (40 per cent), where numbers remain dangerously low.
"Looking around the world, we know that there are many, many places where the virus will continue to circulate," said Reimer. "This is going to be something that continues to be part of our lives in some way or another for a long time."
How much it affects our lives, including the need for public health restrictions, will depend entirely on vaccine uptake.
Reimer continued to cite studies from around the world that show the vaccine is not only safe but extremely effective at reducing serious illness and death. The scientific evidence is overwhelming. It’s hard to imagine any reasonable person refuting it.
COVID-19 vaccines are no different than the routine childhood immunizations the vast majority of Canadians receive to control and eradicate a wide range of infectious diseases. There is virtually no public concern about the efficacy or long-term effects of those (including new vaccines introduced over the years), because they are also safe and effective. All approved vaccines in Canada undergo rigorous clinical trials, as COVID-19 vaccines have. All are analyzed on an ongoing basis using real world data.
Manitoba still has a chance to increase its immunization rates to avoid the possibility of a serious fourth wave, where businesses may have to close again and hospital patients start to pile up. The solution to end this is right in front of us: there are nearly a half-million doses of COVID-19 sitting in cold storage in Manitoba. Almost everyone over 12 could be fully immunized by Halloween if they wanted to. It’s almost too easy.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.