Youth movement: How vaccines shifted the pandemic burden to kids, teens and young adults

During the third wave of the pandemic, COVID-19 has become a young person's disease. Most people getting sick in Manitoba are under 30 — and that is bound to continue for weeks.

People under 30 now make up the majority of cases … and this is only going to continue

Manitobans in their 20s now make up the largest cohort of COVID-19 cases. (EmmepiPhoto/Shutterstock)

During the third wave of the pandemic, COVID-19 has become a young person's disease. 

As of this moment, people under the age of 30 account for more than half of the active COVID cases in this province.

Kids under the age of 10 make up 16 per cent of Manitoba's cases. Children and teens aged 10-19 account for 18 per cent. Men and women in their 20s make up the largest infected age demographic, with 21 per cent of the active cases in the province.

All in all, people under 30 make up 55 per cent of the active caseload — up from 28 per cent during the mild first wave of the pandemic and 40 per cent as the severe second wave was wrapping up.

This is a significant change. Earlier in the pandemic, COVID infections skewed older and swept through entire personal-care homes.

(CBC News Graphics)

Right now, people over the age 60 account for a paltry nine per cent of the caseload. The oldest Manitobans simply are not catching COVID-19 in large numbers any more.

The main reason for this is obvious: Since the province started vaccinating the general population in February, the oldest Manitobans were given priorities for the shot. Age-based prioritization was instituted because older people tend to suffer the most severe effects of COVID-19.

The benefits of this approach can be seen in the relatively low number of deaths reported in Manitoba during this third wave.

In the month of April, Manitoba reported 4,607 new cases of COVID-19 and 39 deaths related to disease. That means last month's COVID fatality rate in this province was 0.8 per cent.

That is a significant improvement from the entire first year of the pandemic, when 2.8 per cent of Manitobans who contracted COVID-19 ended up dying from the disease.

In other words, fewer people are succumbing to the novel coronavirus, even as more people are starting to get infected by it again.

On Friday, Manitoba reported 295 new cases of COVID-19, the highest single-day total since Dec. 18, when 350 cases were reported.

Altogether, these numbers illustrate how much more contagious COVID-19 has become during this third wave. Manitoba's case counts are rising at roughly the same the vertiginous rate they did during the second wave, even though a third of us have some immunity to the virus.

There is nothing surprising about seeing so many children, teens and young adults among the ranks of the infected right now. Manitobans only had to look to Ontario and the U.K. to see what happened when the spread of variants of concern outpaced vaccination efforts.

The only question that remains is the proper policy response.

Manitoba's vaccination implementation team, led on the medical side by Dr. Joss Reimer, have sought over the past two weeks to immunize neighbourhoods and regions most at risk of infection. 

While mass vaccinations of everyone aged 18 and up in much of Winnipeg, Brandon and northern Manitoba won't slow the case growth in the immediate future, this strategy should blunt the potential spread toward the end of May.

The case growth over the next 10 to 15 days, however, is beyond anyone's control, either through restrictions or through vaccinations.

Manitoba's toughest tool to combat COVID-19 — the ban on household visitation — only went back into effect on Wednesday. Given the incubation period for the virus that causes COVID-19, it will take two weeks before this blunt form of enforced isolation begins to staunch the spread of the disease.

Immunizations take even longer, given that they typically take days to book and then further weeks to take effect, as vaccine recipients produce their own antibodies to the virus.

Vaccine eligibility for everyone aged 18 and up in Winnipeg. (CBC News Graphics)

In other words, it is logical to expect a series of very high case counts in Manitoba over the next two weeks. Provincial public health authorities could have braced the populace for this prospect by unveiling  potential case-growth scenarios.

Dr. Brent Roussin and Dr. Jazz Atwal, however, do not disclose pandemic projections.

Another potential policy response involves closing schools, which remain some of the last places where large numbers of unvaccinated people gather in confined, indoor spaces.

Dr. Roussin, however, insists the virus tends to spread between students away from schools themselves, in settings such as private residences, where the behaviour and movement of kids is less regimented.

This long-standing contention made Premier Brian Pallister's sudden declaration he intends to vaccinate teachers unusual. If schools are not a vector for infection, then why vaccinate teachers?

Either the premier or the chief public health officer is mistaken in their epidemiological assessment of the risk posed by schools. Neither of them, however, are in charge of Manitoba's vaccination plan.

It is important to note Dr. Reimer has yet to weigh in on Pallister's teacher-vaccination plan, which involves sending teachers to North Dakota for shots. 

This plan is fraught with logistical challenges, as it requires the co-operation of Canadian and American border authorities, North Dakotan officials and presumably, Manitoban school divisions and other employers. 

Even if every Manitoba teacher somehow gets vaccinated this afternoon, younger Manitobans will continue to be at risk of COVID-19 during the short term.

The province has opted against a complete shutdown, which would involve a stay-at-home order, citing the severe consequences Draconian measures would have on the provincial economy, never mind the collective mental health of the populace.

That may very well be the correct course of action, given the relatively slow rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations during this third wave, so far.

But Manitobans ought to be aware of what's likely to occur between now and the middle of May: More people are bound to get sick, and most of them will be under 30.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.

With files from Nick Frew