Stalled push for third dose needs boost

With COVID-19 hospitalizations again on the rise and widespread reports of reinfection, it’s high time Manitoba public health officials started aggressively promoting the need for people to get their third vaccine dose.

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Opinion

With COVID-19 hospitalizations again on the rise and widespread reports of reinfection, it’s high time Manitoba public health officials started aggressively promoting the need for people to get their third vaccine dose.

Fresh data released last week shows even with the more contagious Omicron subvariant BA.2 in wide circulation, a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine provides significant protection against severe outcomes. It’s something public health has done a poor job of communicating over the past few months.

Between Feb. 14 and March 28, the rate of hospitalization for unvaccinated Manitobans (age adjusted) was 651.7 per 100,000 people. For those with a third dose, it was only 32.6 per 100,000.

Unvaccinated Manitobans were 20 times more likely to end up in hospital than those with a booster shot.

Unvaccinated Manitobans were 20 times more likely to end up in hospital than those with a booster shot.

The disparity was even more stark for admission to intensive care units. Among the unvaccinated, 74.4 per 100,000 ended up in an ICU — 25 times more likely than the 2.9 per 100,000 who were fully boosted.

The death rate for unvaccinated Manitobans was 60 times higher than those with a third dose.

Province of Manitoba

There was also a marked difference in effectiveness between second and third doses. There were 87.3 hospitalizations per 100,000 for Manitobans with only two doses, about 2.7 times the rate of those with a third shot. ICU admissions for people with a second dose was more than twice the rate of those with three doses. It was almost double for deaths.

It’s important data because it shows even though the Omicron variant is far more transmissible than previous strains, vaccines are still by far the best way to protect against severe illness.

Somehow that message has been lost in recent months, probably because of confusion between protection against infection versus protection against severe illness.

The COVID-19 vaccine has not been terribly effective at preventing infection against the latest strains. However, it continues to be exceptionally good at reducing the risk of severe illness. Because so many people have been testing positive lately, even after three doses, it has fuelled perception vaccines “don’t work.”

Because so many people have been testing positive lately, even after three doses, it has fuelled perception vaccines “don’t work.”

In fact, they do work — by significantly reducing the risk of severe outcomes, which is the main goal of managing the novel coronavirus.

That’s been a tough message to sell when so many people, including the vaccinated, have been contracting the disease.

Public health officials have dropped the ball on promoting the effectiveness of third doses in recent months. It is as if they gave up at some point, probably because of the political direction they’re getting from government to turn off the information taps.

Officials have had good data since at least January on how much better people are protected after a third dose compared with two shots. Yet, they have failed to widely disseminate that information.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Unvaccinated Manitobans were 20 times more likely to end up in hospital than those with a booster shot.

The focus instead by the Stefanson government has been to deprive the public of data while hoping the COVID-19 pandemic will go away on its own. The information ban itself has been a form of government propaganda.

Government has abandoned normal public health principles over the past several months. Instead of devising a plan with good information on how to move to the next phase of the pandemic — whether it’s endemic or not — including aggressively promoting third doses, government is trying to create a perception the pandemic is over.

It’s a see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil approach that has trickled down to public health.

It’s a see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil approach that has trickled down to public health.

The consequences were predictable. In addition to some people getting really sick, including a minority requiring an ICU bed or ultimately dying, hospitals are struggling once again with a surge of COVID-19 patients.

Health-care staff will have to be redeployed once more to assist (some have still not returned to their normal jobs after the last pandemic wave), resulting in more surgical and diagnostic testing cancellations and postponements.

Only about half of eligible Manitobans have had a third dose of the vaccine (42 per cent of the total population, according to what little data the province still publishes).

That’s not nearly high enough to protect hospital capacity. The evidence of that is becoming more pronounced every week.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

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

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