Indifference to booster shots alarming Province’s cavalier dismantling of pandemic infrastructure amid hospital crisis hard to fathom

Is it really all that surprising that Manitoba is way behind in our COVID-19 booster shots?

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Opinion

Is it really all that surprising that Manitoba is way behind in our COVID-19 booster shots?

Testing and vaccination supersites have been closed. Mask and vaccine mandates have been terminated. COVID-19 briefings have become infrequent and the information provided extremely limited. There is no current and comprehensive public education campaign.

All in all, it would be hard to design a better strategy to dampen enthusiasm for booster shots.

Only slightly more than half of all Manitobans aged 12 and up who are eligible for a booster (third) shot have stepped forward. That is below the national average of 54 per cent, and only slightly better than Saskatchewan and Alberta, both of which have less than half of all eligible residents boosted.

Our pointed and growing ambivalence about boosters has become so chronic that Canada’s chief public health officer delivered a warning late last week to start ramping up efforts to convince more Canadians to get a booster shot or risk plunging the country back into crisis.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam delivered a warning late last week to start ramping up efforts to convince more Canadians to get a booster shot or risk plunging the country back into crisis.

“We would love to get people mobilized once again, like they did the first round and the second round, to get that booster dose,” Dr. Theresa Tam said Friday. “We’re trying to do that once again, and give it another shot, as it were.”

Why is Tam so anxious about boosters?

Although vaccines cannot stop even fully vaccinated people from contracting most of the Omicron variants circulating in Canada right now, they are still remarkably successful at preventing serious illness and hospitalization. Without boosters, however, those of us with only two doses will slowly become more and more vulnerable to the worst outcomes of COVID-19.

Facing a growing risk like that, Manitoba has fashioned one of the most illogical and impractical responses ever. And that’s saying something given the fatal mistakes we made over the past two years.

The dismantling of PCR testing capacity is among the most illogical. Rapid antigen tests are now widely available but they are not a substitute for the more accurate PCR tests. Should a new and even more dangerous variant emerge, it’s unlikely government will be able to rebuild testing capacity quickly enough for us to meet the challenge head-on.

Rapid antigen tests are now widely available but they are not a substitute for the more accurate PCR tests.

The termination of mask and vaccine mandates was also devoid of logic. The legal and administrative infrastructure was already in place, and the science backed up the efficacy of both. Masks slow the rates of infection, and vaccine mandates — which limit what the unvaccinated can do and where they can go — are the single-most effective way of encouraging booster shots.

The deliberate decision to withhold data about the state of the pandemic in Manitoba is nothing short of immoral. How can people make informed decisions about protecting themselves if they don’t know the magnitude of the risk they face?

Manitoba’s PC government, along with provincial governments across the country, are fully and completely culpable for both the inadequate uptake of booster shots and the disease and death that will surely follow.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Without boosters, however, those of us with only two doses will slowly become more and more vulnerable to the worst outcomes of COVID-19.

Even without a regular and reliable flow of information from government, the evidence of the risk we face can be seen.

Wait times in Winnipeg emergency rooms have reached historic levels, while the number of health-care workers unable to report to work is growing. Doctors Manitoba last week reported 55 physicians in isolation because of COVID-19, double the number of the previous week.

And even though many provinces have stopped reporting daily hospital admissions, the federal government has continued to track the situation. Tam said last week that Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta — the three provinces with the lowest booster uptake — also had the highest rates of hospitalization in the country.

As we struggle with booster laggards, we’re also gaining new insight into the continuing threat posed by the unvaccinated.

As we struggle with booster laggards, we’re also gaining new insight into the continuing threat posed by the unvaccinated.

New research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows that although Omicron variants can still infect fully vaccinated people, the risk of contracting the virus is still much lower. The study found that the rate of infection among fully vaccinated people was between 10 and 15 per cent; among the unvaccinated, it was 79 per cent.

This information is important because fully vaccinated Canadians who go without a booster shot will, in the very near future, lose the immunity gained through their first two doses. Current modelling suggests that at some point this year, many “fully” vaccinated people will end up almost as vulnerable as the unvaccinated, which means greater risk of serious illness and death.

Given that most medical and scientific experts see a future where regular COVID-19 booster shots will be needed to protect the health-care system from implosion, our indifference to third-dose boosters is a worrisome trend.

Given that most medical and scientific experts see a future where regular COVID-19 booster shots will be needed to protect the health-care system from implosion, our indifference to third-dose boosters is a worrisome trend.

It seems clear now that when the PC government began to dismantle its pandemic controls, it did not anticipate the impact it would have on booster shots. There seems to have been an assumption that with nearly 90 per cent of eligible Manitobans getting two doses, the uptake for a third shot would be just as robust.

It might have been, if government had not chosen to signal its lack of concern by ending mandates and removing all restrictions.

From this point on, both government and citizen will share in one inescapable reality: regardless of how bad things get, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

JOHN LOCHER / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE Manitoba’s PC government, along with provincial governments across the country, are fully and completely culpable for both the inadequate uptake of booster shots and the disease and death that will surely follow.
Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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