The mass COVID-19 vaccination clinics across Manitoba will scale back operations next month, as provincial projections show a huge drop in immunizations by early August.
Johanu Botha, co-lead for the province’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, said his team is planning for the eventual decommission of supersite clinics to begin in mid- to late August, as demand slows.
"It’s very likely that these big pipes — these big supersites — may not be necessary beyond that time frame, at least maybe not all of them," Botha said during a noon-hour press conference Wednesday.
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The medical lead of Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine task force says now that supply is no longer a concern, Manitobans should stick to the same brand of mRNA vaccine, whenever possible.
“When we were going through vaccine supply disruptions and delays and uncertainty it was important for you to know that having a mixed schedule was safe, effective and recommended at that time,” Dr. Joss Reimer said Wednesday.
“Now you can book an appointment or find a walk-in opportunity for Pfizer or Moderna generally within a few days of each other,” Reimer said. “So the guidance for you is to get the same brand of vaccine for your second dose, whenever possible.”
Reimer said that people should not delay receiving their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and said if mixing manufacturers means getting fully immunized sooner, that is still a safe and appropriate choice.
More than 67,000 Manitobans have chosen to mix mRNA vaccines for their first and second shots, provincial data shows.
Reimer said that the province continues to work with the federal government, which is in discussion with the World Health Organization, to develop consistent vaccination policies related to travel, border crossings and mixed vaccine schedules.
— Danielle da Silva
While Botha declined to comment on the extent to which clinic operations may be reduced in Winnipeg, or how soon that may happen, he said there is a possibility that hours will be scaled back at the Leila Avenue location and the RBC Convention Centre, or only one clinic may be open on a given day.
"We don’t want idle sites, we don’t want a workforce that feels like it isn’t being used well," Botha said. "We’ll turn it on and off, as we think we need to, for the demand."
Provincial projections show over the next 10 days, there will be only five dates when supersites deliver more than 10,000 doses, the busiest of which will be July 30, when more than 20,000 doses are scheduled to be administered.
The province projects fewer than 5,000 doses will be given at supersites daily during the first week of August.
Cinics outside of Winnipeg already keep hours relative to the number of appointments scheduled, Botha said.
"We’ll keep them running as much as we need to," he said.
The spike in the number of doses administered at supersites in late July is a result of people booked for second shots, many of whom have been waiting for more Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to arrive, Botha said.
The short period of high demand will also push Manitoba closer to its third vaccination target of fully immunizing 75 per cent of the eligible population.
"After that time, the amount of appointments have really levelled off, because we should at that time, if all goes well, be very close to our targets," Botha said. "It’s no reason to be very pessimistic. It just means where we're at this point where the supersites have done a lot of heavy lifting, the appointments will probably be running out around that middle, end of August."
The province informed government employees working overtime at clinics as navigators at the convention centre site they weren't needed any longer, effective last Friday. A regular staffing complement of more than 4,500 people, between Shared Health and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority employees is now sufficient, officials said.
As of Wednesday, 77.9 per cent of eligible Manitobans had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and of that number , 63.1 per cent were fully vaccinated.
According to the province, 80.6 per cent of Winnipeg residents 12 or older have had at least one dose of the vaccine.
To reach the next target — which was initially set for the Labour Day weekend and would trigger a lifting of public-health orders on all services, facilities and businesses with some limited restrictions — 12,000 more people need to sign up for their first shot and 60,000 more people need to sign up for their second.
"We don’t want idle sites, we don’t want a workforce that feels like it isn’t being used well." – Johanu Botha
"We believe this target is absolutely achievable," Botha said, adding the work of targeted, community-led clinics, focused immunization teams and pharmacists and physicians will continue even after the mass clinics slow down.
This week approximately 30,000 doses have been provided to community-led clinics targeting populations across the province, he said.
The task force is in the last stages of drafting a plan that would see supersite clinics phased out and COVID-19 immunization to become routine, similar to influenza and other vaccination programs. More information will be shared when it’s ready, he said.
"We’re still in the fight. So while we are finalizing the plan, we’re not going to pull the plug on any of these, or confirm that we will, until we know that we’ve done everything we can to provide as much opportunity for all Manitobans to be vaccinated," he said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.