3rd time, no charm: Once a COVID vaccine leader, Manitoba lags on booster doses
No simple explanation for Manitoba's status as the 3rd-worst province for getting out 3rd doses
By any objective measure, Manitoba's efforts to get as many people as possible immunized against COVID-19 was an immense success during the initial phases of the vaccination program.
As of April 10, the most recent date for which the province has reported vaccine data to the federal government, 89.7 per cent of people in this province age 12 and up have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
That's slightly better than the national average of 89.5 per cent.
But when it comes to third doses — the booster shots that replenish the human body's ability to generate antibodies against the virus that causes COVID, help reduce the spread of the illness and mitigate the severity of the illness for people who do get sick — Manitoba has fallen well behind the national pack.
As of April 10, only 50.5 per cent of Manitobans age 12 and up have received three or more COVID-19 vaccine doses. That's well behind the national average of 54.3 per cent and third-worst among the provinces.
Only Alberta and Saskatchewan have mounted less robust campaigns to get booster shots into arms.
There does not appear to be any simple explanation for Manitoba's new status as a vaccination laggard, especially compared to our initial status as one of the pace-setting provinces.
Earlier in the week, Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the Progressive Conservative government of taking the foot off the vaccination gas pedal.
"They want to act like COVID is over, and I think that's had a real impact on the average person out there feeling that urgency that we all felt to go get our first and second shots," Kinew said Monday.
"I think the government could have a change in tone and come out and tell people … 'Listen, COVID is still with us. It's still impacting our province. We need folks to go out and get their third and fourth shots.'"
COVID hospitalizations up: internal data
The impact on health care was made clear last Friday, when Winnipeg Regional Health Authority CEO Mike Nader told employees via email an unusual number of COVID patients in hospital were contributing to lengthy wait times at emergency wards.
Nader went further on Monday, saying patient flow in hospitals has been disrupted by the need to isolate infectious patients, outfit staff in protective equipment and keep patients in emergency wards longer while they wait for COVID test results.
Internal provincial data obtained by CBC News on Wednesday showed there were 579 COVID-19 patients in Manitoba hospitals, up from 538 as of April 19.
Of those 579 patients, 28 were in intensive care, up two from the previous week.
Kinew also accused the province of doing little to promote booster shots. Health Minister Audrey Gordon rejected that claim, insisting the province has not given up on trying to get more Manitobans boosted.
"We're doing absolutely a lot to get that message out," Gordon said during a news briefing on Tuesday.
"I myself was publicly vaccinated for my third dose. We have social media campaigns running. I don't know if you've taken a look lately at some of the [bus] benches in your areas … driving throughout your community, but we still have our COVID vaccine benches out."
The provincial government declined a CBC News request to interview an official responsible for the vaccination program, saying no one was available to speak about third doses on Wednesday.
The province also cancelled an interview with Dr. Joss Reimer, the former medical lead of Manitoba's vaccine implementation task force, on the basis Reimer is "not in a position" to speak about vaccination in her new role as the chief medical officer for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
Vaccination push in other provinces
This apparent lack of enthusiasm to speak about third doses comes as the federal government and several other provinces ramp up their efforts to get more Canadians vaccinated.
The Public Health Agency of Canada, for example, is funding a pilot project modelled on a successful Quebec effort to get more newborn babies vaccinated against a variety of pathogens.
The Quebec program involved one-on-one counselling sessions in hospitals with parents of newborn kids. The COVID-vaccine version will see "immunization counsellors" conduct "motivational interviews" via Zoom, said Fatima Tokhmafshan, a Montreal geneticist who is a community-outreach director at the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network.
"It's not about just overloading people with information. It's more about listening, understanding what the context is, what their cultural understandings are, their values are and where they come from," said Tokhmafshan.
People can sign up for the sessions online. If they prove to be effective, they may be offered to more Canadians, she said.
"This kind of intervention hasn't been delivered online virtually before. So we want to make sure that it is as effective as it was in person."
This is just one way vaccination proponents are trying to reach people who are not enthusiastic about getting shots. Manitoba has a proven track record with other strategies, including pop-up clinics.
But for whatever reason, third-dose uptake simply has not been as strong as it was for the first and second doses in Manitoba. It is fair to seek an explanation for the change.