Challenges continue in promoting booster shots

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The country’s top doctor may still be stressing the importance of COVID-19 booster shots, but some experts believe lack of communication from the province is leaving most Manitobans with little appreciation for the value and importance of further protection against the virus.

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The country’s top doctor may still be stressing the importance of COVID-19 booster shots, but some experts believe lack of communication from the province is leaving most Manitobans with little appreciation for the value and importance of further protection against the virus.

A year ago, Manitoba was offering lottery prizes to those who got vaccinated, encouraging celebrities to share vaccination selfies on social media and letting walk-ins get first or second shots.

Provincial health leaders such as Dr. Brent Roussin and Dr. Joss Reimer kept up that urgency last December, as the Omicron wave took over, by loosening third dose timelines.

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

Now, with just half of eligible Manitobans getting a booster shot, the province is putting up a few billboards and bus ads to encourage more third doses.

But officials are no longer in the spotlight, and have no stated goal for how many people should get boosted.

Yet the country’s top doctor says boosters could stem ongoing hospital strain and prevent lifelong COVID-19 symptoms.

“There are still some gaps in vaccine coverage for the booster dose,” Dr. Theresa Tam said last Friday.

She warned that Canada is on the path of having groups of people with either two or four doses, unless provinces resume a full-court press to get jabs in arms.

“Fourth doses seem to be responsible for a majority of the increase in vaccine administered in recent weeks,” Tam said.

“We could do a lot better of course.”

A noisy environment

University of Manitoba health professor Michelle Driedger noticed a sharp shift in Manitoba’s tone in mid-January.

The province had spent a month urging people to get booster shots, warning that two doses did not adequately protect the public as the Omicron variant was ripping through the community.

Just weeks later, the province prepared families to send their children to school, insisting COVID-19 was mild in kids.

“Those kinds of reassurances, which are important, end up undermining the other message, that it’s important to vaccinate your children,” Driedger said, who researches public health.

“For a lot of parents, that (creates a) disconnect, of: ‘Do I really want to be taking a chance on a vaccine that I’m not convinced on, when I’m hearing that my kid is probably going to handle that quite well?’”

By that point, thousands of Manitobans had recently caught Omicron, the vast majority seemingly with mild symptoms.

Driedger said that rapid spread created public assumptions that an Omicron infection could replace a booster, because officials did not stress that vaccines provide better protection than natural immunity.

If anything, many in that recently-infected group might not be sure when to get their third shot. The official guidance is three months since testing positive, but that’s not prominently displayed online.

Most provinces have dropped vaccine mandates entirely, which generally only required two doses. France, Germany, Israel and other countries are making third doses a requirement for activities such as air travel and restaurant dining.

As of last week, just 43 per cent of Manitobans had received three shots of a COVID-19 vaccine, and just 13 per cent of the small group that qualifies for a fourth shot had done so.

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and information-management professor at the University of Toronto, said those underwhelming numbers could stem from confusion over official terminology.

“When we use the term ‘fully vaccinated’ to refer to two doses, we are kneecapping the willingness to get an extra dose,” he said.

“It sounds like a weakness … like a booster seat for children. The ‘booster’ word is infantilizing.”

Driedger said governments aren’t making it clear to the public that booster doses can help prevent months-long symptoms that can stem from even mild cases of the disease, known as “long COVID.”

Instead, Premier Heather Stefanson has lifted virtually all restrictions, saying people must “learn to live with the virus.”

“There’s all these kinds of competing signals that are taking away from that sense of why would I need to bother to get that booster,” Driedger said.

“It’s a really noisy environment right now.”

No stated goal

Manitoba’s initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout targeted messaging at groups eligible and willing to get vaccinated, with some promotion to those who were eagerly waiting their turn.

Later on, the province commissioned polling, and found roughly 20 per cent were hesitant to get a shot, while 10 per cent were dead-set against it. Officials crafted ads and community projects to promote the vaccine to those groups.

Now, it’s unclear what the province is doing.

Manitoba Health has declined multiple interview requests on vaccine policies in recent months, and said no one was available to speak all of last week.

The department provided no information on whether it’s doing research on vaccine uptake, who’s now in charge of the campaign, and what targets the province has set.

The strategy seems to fall to doctors coaxing patients to getting boosted.

“Our physicians are doing that, pharmacists are doing the same,” Health Minister Audrey Gordon said last month.

“It’s a whole-of-the-health-care system approach to ensure Manitobans know about the importance of this.”

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"

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Updated on Monday, May 9, 2022 6:13 AM CDT: Removes deck

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