Manitoba struggles to convince people to get booster shots as many shrug and stay away

Public health authorities are reducing barriers to encourage Manitobans to get boosted with the new Moderna bivalent COVID-19 vaccine that targets the Omicron variant, but not everyone is ready for the shots.

Starting Thursday, eligible people over 18 can book appointments to get Moderna's bivalent vaccine

Winnipegger Danis Karuba said he'll wait to get the new bivalent vaccine since he doesn't think getting a booster is urgent right now. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Manitoba health authorities are urging everyone who's eligible to get the new vaccine that targets the Omicron variant of COVID-19 — but it's not clear if that message is hitting the mark.

As more people return to normal, post-lockdown life, some experts say vaccine fatigue may be preventing people from taking the measures they need to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

"I think I'm good for now," said Winnipegger Danis Karuba, when he learned Wednesday that people over 18 can now get a dose of the Moderna bivalent vaccine. 

"If it's mandatory, then I'm probably going to have to, but right now I'm going to stick with the two that I have."

Karuba said he hasn't heard of any cases of COVID in his social circles for at least a couple of months.

"So there's nothing really to worry about for me right now," he said.

That's the kind of thinking health authorities need to address, said Dr. Michelle Driedger, a professor of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba.

University of Manitoba community health professor Michelle Driedger said the province needs to address misconceptions about the protection offered by COVID-19 booster shots to fight vaccine complacency and fatigue. (Submitted by Michelle Driedger)

"In some of our research, we've been hearing an association that, 'When I get other kinds of vaccines, it protects me and I don't need to have this constant return for a booster,'" she said.

Another confusing factor, Driedger said, is that COVID vaccines don't completely stop people from catching or spreading the virus.

"That raises a lot of questions for people," she continued. "But the reality is, this virus continues to change and evolve."

Manitoba's chief public health officer has delivered a similar message since vaccines first became available, saying immunization significantly reduces severe health outcomes, but that immunity does wane over time. 

"If you've had your previous doses, or even become infected in the past, this booster is a great way to recharge that immunity," Dr. Brent Roussin said Wednesday. 

"We know from the evidence that this provides the broadest protection available."

Dr. Brent Roussin said the new bivalent COVID vaccine offers important protection as Manitoba heads into a respiratory virus season. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The new booster protects against the original strain of COVID-19 and the newer Omicron strains. It's available to any adult whose last dose was at least three months ago — shorter than the previous requirement of at least six months.

Roussin said the reduced wait is part of an effort to eliminate barriers and encourage people to get the bivalent vaccine as soon as they're eligible.

Health-care worker Andrew Bachand was thrilled to hear he could get the shot on Thursday, the first day of his vacation.

"I can't think of a better way to start my holidays," said Bachand, who works with COVID patients.

"Unfortunately, I see the rougher side of the illness," he said. "Anything I can do to protect my patients and my family, I'm going to take steps to do."

Health-care worker Andrew Bachand said he'll get the new booster right away to help minimize risk to his patients and loved ones. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Roussin said uptake on previous boosters has been lower than the province would like, although he said the exact numbers aren't yet available.

Driedger believes the absence of public health mandates, and the lack of information on Manitoba's case counts, have also made some tune out from the health risks.

"Everything just ended so fast in spring, by specific dates," she explained. "Everything [became] recommendations and no longer requirements. I think that has created a level of complacency."

Eshaan Revis was glad to hear the new bivalent vaccine is now available, but said he won't be rolling up his sleeve right away.

"After I've seen that it's not really taken a toll on my peer group, then I'll go ahead and take it," he said. 

Revis said so far, he's waited 3-4 weeks after becoming eligible to get his first three doses.

Eshaan Revis said he's cautious about COVID vaccines and waits to see how they affect his peers before getting a shot himself. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

He added convenience is also a factor.

"Hopefully we won't have to wait and reserve a booking," he said, saying he got his booster at a nearby supermarket, rather than going to a vaccination super site.

"It's convenient as opposed to the convention centre," said Revis. 

"When you have to go down there, it takes time and you have to plan your day around it."

Roussin said people can use the province's Vaccine Finder map to find pharmacies, stores and clinics offering the doses, and said pop-up vaccination clinics will also continue across Manitoba.

He does not anticipate any supply constraints, and said there are enough bivalent doses for every eligible Manitoban.

"We want to be clear: COVID is still with us," said Roussin. 

"We're moving into a respiratory virus season, where COVID isn't going to be the only virus affecting us. And these vaccines are still the best way to protect ourselves."


Emily Brass is a journalist at CBC Manitoba and host of the podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. She's also worked for CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John's, Victoria and London, U.K.