Vaccine holdouts keep Manitobans hostage

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.

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.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
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Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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COVID-19 cases climb across the prairies, but Manitoba shows positive signs, experts say

Manitoba’s western neighbours are seeing an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, but experts say that doesn’t necessarily mean the province is heading in the same direction.

Alberta reported 1,401 new cases on Friday, while Saskatchewan added roughly one-third of its 3,184 active cases over the weekend.

But comparing Manitoba to the other prairie provinces isn’t quite apples to apples, according to infectious disease specialist Craig Jenne with the University of Calgary.

“Manitoba has brought in forms of vaccine passports, or mandatory vaccination for certain events, again, a bit of an outlier compared to Alberta. And we saw earlier reaction to things such as mask mandates and bylaws,” Jenne says.

“All of these together, and acting early, before the health system becomes overwhelmed, is likely to dramatically lower or blunt that fourth wave in the province.”

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Jenne points out Manitoba’s private sector has also been more willing to implement its own health guidelines, such as for example the Winnipeg Blue Bombers preemptively requiring proof of vaccination.

“That really stood out early compared to other provinces, where in Alberta — and as of the football this weekend — there was still no need to produce evidence of vaccination, (but) that will change by mid-September,” Jenne says.

Additionally, Manitoba is outpacing the other two provinces in terms of vaccine uptake.

As of August 28, federal government data shows a little over 71 per cent of Manitobans had at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 65 and 66 per cent for Saskatchewan and Alberta respectively.

“We got off to a great start, probably leading the country or second in the country in the first two, three months, but we have since stalled pretty much, crawling in terms of getting those first dose into people’s arms,” says Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist with the University of Saskatchewan.

Dr. Muhajarine adds Manitoba’s use of the vaccine passport, coupled with a comparatively slower and more measured approach to reopening, may avert cases from skyrocketing.

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“Saskatchewan and Alberta, two provinces in contrast, have lifted those public health measures almost immediately when we got to a certain number of vaccine uptake,” Dr. Muhajarine says.

“In fact in Saskatchewan we didn’t get quite there, but a spitting distance perhaps … and we lifted all restrictions on July 11.”

Manitoba’s deputy chief provincial Public Health Officer, Dr. Jazz Atwal, says officials are trying to avoid a lockdown as much as possible, but they need buy-in.

“This is going to be up to Manitobans,” Dr. Atwal says.

“Again, if all Manitobans do what they can to mitigate COVID-19. So that is get vaccinated, that is if you’re sick, go get tested, partake in case and contact management, and be conscious of hygiene, be conscious of your interactions.”

Dr. Atwal adds by limiting opportunities for unvaccinated individuals to mingle – something the other prairie provinces have been slow to embrace — Manitoba may stay ahead of the curve.

In addition, health officials can still look at reintroducing ways to limit interactions between people, in order to stem a fourth wave he’s previously said was unavoidable.

That said, he admits case counts will inevitably rise with students heading back to the classrooms.

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Manitoba health officials say new data shows the power of COVID-19 vaccines

WINNIPEG

The Canadian Press

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Manitoba continues to avoid the kind of fourth-wave surge in COVID-19 cases seen in most other provinces, although health officials say the numbers will likely rise in the coming weeks.

The province is reporting 36 new infections – the latest in a string of days with counts between 30 and 60.

Federal government statistics show Manitoba has recorded the lowest per-capita case rate, west of the Maritimes, over the last two weeks.

Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief public health officer, says part of the reason is that Manitoba loosened its restrictions later than most other provinces.

He says that meant more people were vaccinated when public health orders were relaxed.

Atwal warns, however, that case counts are expected to increase as students return to class.

“What we’re anticipating, for sure, is some extra cases being generated – just because kids are going to be interacting,” Atwal said Tuesday. He also reported six deaths since Friday.

“They’re going to be part of, let’s say, cohorts. They’re going to have more interactions in school than they would have, let’s say, [when] they weren’t in school over the summer months.”

To try to keep case numbers down, Manitoba recently expanded its vaccination card program. The digital or printed proof of vaccination is now required to attend cinemas, pro sports events, concerts, restaurants and other gathering places.

“We have essentially limited [the] ability for unvaccinated people to intermingle in close settings indoors,” Atwal said.

The province is also trying a new tactic to convince more people to get vaccinated. It has started breaking down its daily tally of COVID-19 cases to show how many are unvaccinated.

On Tuesday, fully vaccinated people made up 29 per cent of active cases, nine per cent of active COVID-19 cases in hospital and zero per cent of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.

“The power of the vaccine is there. We know that if you’re vaccinated your risk of a severe outcome at any age is negligible,” Atwal said.

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School resumes without protocol to report COVID cases

As students head back to class with the fourth wave of COVID-19 on the horizon, Manitoba has yet to release its plans to announce and manage cases within schools, test unvaccinated workers, and increase health-care system capacity.

Deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said Tuesday those plans will be released to the public as soon as they're ready.

JOHN WOODS / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said Tuesday those plans will be released to the public as soon as they’re ready.

As students head back to class with the fourth wave of COVID-19 on the horizon, Manitoba has yet to release its plans to announce and manage cases within schools, test unvaccinated workers, and increase health-care system capacity.

The provincial government is still finalizing its COVID-19 protocols for contact tracing, case management and notification of the virus’s spread within schools and is expected to soon provide details on how it will test and monitor employees who don’t get inoculated despite the provincial vaccine mandate.

Deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said Tuesday those plans will be released to the public as soon as they’re ready. The province has not said how it will avoid having to send patients out of province for treatment again if Manitoba ICUs overflow as they did in the third wave.

Asked about that on Tuesday, Atwal cited continuous health-care staffing challenges in Manitoba and across the country. He said Shared Health “has done a tremendous job to increase staffing levels as best as it can.”

“From a public health perspective, we do have to take that capacity into account. We have to be realistic on what we’re able to accomplish from a personnel perspective, and that’s why we want to keep our case numbers low so the impact on the acute-care system is minimal.”

Case counts are currently low, but public-health officials expect them to increase this fall. They’re aware of the implications of school-aged children transmitting the virus to older relatives, and are still urging everyone 12 and older to get vaccinated.

Public-health officials don’t want to see schools close again, but Atwal acknowledged that could happen.

“It’s hard to predict that future. We’re doing what we can from a public-health perspective to ensure kids stay in school and have as much of a normal school year as they can,” he said, adding the future “depends on how Manitobans behave.”

Sept. 7 was the deadline for designated provincial employees — including health-care workers and teachers — to get their first dose of vaccine. Under provincial vaccine mandates, those workers are required to get vaccinated or be subject to regular testing and provide proof of negative test results in order to work.

The province doesn’t yet know how many designated workers are unvaccinated but will be able to track how many unvaccinated health-care workers require testing.

Last month, the provincial government announced that employees who work with vulnerable people and still choose not to be vaccinated will have to undergo a COVID-19 test up to three times a week. The deadline to get a second dose is Oct. 17.

“On the testing side, in relation to that specific mandate that’s going to come into effect, we’re still finalizing that. Once details of that are available, we will provide that to the public,” said Atwal.

Emphasizing that vaccines prevent severe illness, Atwal said public-health officials want to avoid having to cancel more surgeries and diagnostic tests.

“It’s the unvaccinated that are impacting the acute-care system; that’s what we’re seeing in other provinces,” he said.

“Once our numbers start to increase, we’re going to have to cancel surgeries for those who are vaccinated and for those who are unvaccinated,” Atwal later added.

On Tuesday, the province announced 36 new cases of COVID-19 and six additional deaths, putting Manitoba’s death toll at 1,198.

Since Thursday, 215 new cases have been detected. The test positivity rate is 2.7 per cent provincewide. In Winnipeg, it’s 1.4 per cent. Public health declined to release test positivity rates for the Southern health region, which has the highest rate of unvaccinated residents in Manitoba.

Manitoba is still trying to reach at least 80 per cent vaccine uptake across the province, vaccine task force lead Dr. Joss Reimer said. The youngest who can be offered the vaccine are kids who will turn 12 this year. Sixty-four per cent of Manitoba youth aged 12 to 17 have been fully vaccinated.

It’s expected immunocompromised Manitobans will eventually be offered a third dose.

“We’re actively working on this question and I hope that very soon we’ll be able to provide Manitoba with more information about who should get a third dose and when,” Reimer said.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

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Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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