After 16 months, the crisis phase of the COVID pandemic is finally receding
High vaccination rates put Manitoba 'in good shape,' even with a delta wave looming in the future
After 16 miserable months, the pandemic is finally on the wane in Manitoba — and this time, the crisis may be receding for good.
For starters, there are fewer people getting sick. The seven-day average daily COVID-19 case count in this province has dropped by 87 per cent in six weeks. It's now 61, after tumbling down from a pandemic high of 482 on May 22.
The prevalence of the virus that causes COVID has also receded, suggesting the third wave is in the rearview mirror. The percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is stuck around the six per cent mark, but that's far less worrisome than the third-wave peak of 14.5 per cent on May 23.
The health-care burden remains very high, but it's at a much more manageable level. The number of Manitoban COVID-19 patients who require intensive care has dropped by more than 61 per cent since June 2.
On that day, a record 109 Manitoba COVID patients were spread across ICUs in four Canadian provinces. There are now 42 Manitoban COVID-19 ICU patients in hospitals in Manitoba and Ontario.
Finally, the COVID-19 vaccination rate has risen to the point where even some of the most cautious pandemic observers are optimistic about Manitoba's ability to withstand future waves of new coronavirus strains.
"Overall, we're in good shape," said University of Manitoba virologist Jason Kindrachuk, a Canada Research Chair in the molecular pathogenesis of emerging and re-emerging viruses.
On Tuesday, Manitoba officially surpassed the vaccination targets it set for Aug. 2. More than 75 per cent of Manitobans age 12 and up now have least one vaccine dose, and almost 52 per cent have two doses.
This means the vast majority of Manitobans now have some protection against COVID-19, including the more contagious variants of concern.
Reports out of Israel, where the delta variant is spreading despite a high vaccination rate, must be tempered with the knowledge immunized people who do get infected rarely become sick enough to require hospital care, Kindrachuk said.
"When we look at the overall protection we have, even with one dose, certainly we're able to show that there's protection from severe disease and at least likely some partial protection from getting infected," he said.
"Of course, we're moving towards two doses, so the area of concern for us are people that have no vaccinations whatsoever."
Vaccine uptake in Manitoba varies greatly. In the Cross Lake/Pimicikimak health district north of Lake Winnipeg, a province-leading 89 per cent of eligible people have one vaccine dose.
At the other end of the scale, the first-dose uptake in southern Manitoba's Stanley health district, which surrounds Morden and Winkler, is only 19 per cent. In the Hanover health district, which curves around Steinbach, first-dose uptake is 39 per cent.
"If the variants get into those areas, there will be quite a bit of spread very, very quickly," Kindrachuk said.
This is the main reason the vaccine team is working with ethnic and religious communities to improve vaccine uptake, and not just in southern health districts.
While it appears Manitoba will have no problem reaching a Labour Day goal of getting first doses to 80 per cent of eligible adults, the prevailing wisdom is a vaccination rate closer to 90 per cent would be more effective at reducing the impact of a delta-induced fourth wave.
"In terms of hitting those higher-level targets for dose-one coverage in total, we'll aim for it," said Johanu Botha, operations and logistics lead for Manitoba's vaccine implementation team.
Manitoba now has enough vaccine supply to meet the demand in the coming weeks, he said. The persistence of that demand after the 80-per-cent target is met remains a question mark.
So is the timing of an expected fourth wave. The delta variant is expected to spread more widely here, though public health has yet to predict when a delta wave will start.
There's also no indication whether Manitoba will be affected by the lambda variant now wreaking havoc in Peru, which has a low vaccination rate.
Kindrachuk said even when Manitoba gets COVID-19 down to a level where few if any restrictions are needed, the disease may continue to be a recurring problem.
"The latest estimations are a couple of years or more to get vaccine coverage out to the more resource-limited settings in the globe. Those are the areas where we're going to continue to see a lot of devastation," he said, with Peru and Indonesia suffering now.
Kindrachuk said as long as COVID-19 transmission continues unabated somewhere on the planet, there exists the potential for new variants of concern.
"That's got to be at the forefront of our mind," he said.
"Ultimately, there is going to be massive global economic implications for other areas of the world, so we've got to get it under control."