‘Appalling’ COVID numbers among seniors spark calls for targeted vaccinations Booster-shot uptake for older age groups a concern, says advocate for retirees, pointing finger at province

Manitoba seniors are bearing the brunt of unchecked COVID-19 spread with retirees representing the bulk of recent critical-care admissions and deaths, spurring calls for a targeted vaccination program to protect the most vulnerable.

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Manitoba seniors are bearing the brunt of unchecked COVID-19 spread with retirees representing the bulk of recent critical-care admissions and deaths, spurring calls for a targeted vaccination program to protect the most vulnerable.

Just 58 per cent of people 80-years of age or older are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines, with booster uptake falling to 57 and 42 per cent for people in their 70s and 60s, respectively, according to recent data from Manitoba Public Health.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks seniors — those aged 60-plus — have accounted for about 60 per cent of COVID-19 intensive-care unit stays, according to the province. Since July, more than three-quarters of deaths owing to COVID-19 in Manitoba have been in people over the age of 60.

“The numbers are appalling,” said Canadian Association of Retired Persons Manitoba president Carmen Nedohin. “People are so anxious to get back to living normally, but they don’t realize unless they keep their boosters up and other vaccinations up, we’re never going to get out of this.”

Compared to uptake of the primary COVID-19 vaccine series — the typical two-dose regime many people refer to as being “fully vaccinated” — booster coverage and uptake of the bivalent Omicron-targeted shot has fallen significantly behind in Manitoba.

According to the province, more than 93 per cent of people 60 or older rolled up their sleeves for two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine. To reach the overwhelming majority of seniors, the province deployed immunization teams to personal-care homes and assisted-living facilities and set up mobile clinics in communities where transportation presented a barrier to vaccination, as part of largest immunization campaign in its history.

Now with provincial vaccination “supersites” long shuttered, vaccination mandates lifted and COVID-19 immunization part of public health’s routine vaccine program, uptake has faltered among vulnerable populations.

Nedohin attributed the lack of enthusiasm in her age cohort to “vaccine fatigue” and a dearth of public-health messaging from the provincial government.

The province’s own statistics on hospitalizations and deaths owing to COVID-19 and vaccine uptake among seniors reinforce the need for a renewed immunization outreach program, she said.

“Quite honestly, I think the problem is government, the provincial government anyway, just doesn’t want to talk about COVID anymore,” she said.

“Quite honestly, I think the problem is government, the provincial government anyway, just doesn’t want to talk about COVID anymore.”–Carmen Nedohin

Regular vaccine clinics hosted at 55-plus buildings, at recreation centres and in participation with seniors’ groups would make a difference, she said. Targeted messaging campaigns would also help to raise awareness of the need.

“If you think about the money that would be saved and the human cost that would be saved if we could keep people out of hospital by getting them their vaccinations — this should be an ongoing effort,” the retiree said.

Michelle Porter, a University of Manitoba professor and director of the Centre on Aging, described uptake of booster and bivalent shots among older Manitobans as concerning.

“The signalling of last March where masks weren’t required anymore, I think a lot of people have a false sense of security that the pandemic is over,” Porter said. “It’s still around, people are still at risk and, clearly, older people are the most at risk as is stated by public health in their announcements that come out every week.”

Receiving a COVID-19 booster shot can be made easier for the aging population, Porter said. Currently, most Manitobans must book an appointment with a doctor, pharmacist or provincially run clinic to receive a shot.

Just 58 per cent of people 80-years of age or older are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines, with booster uptake falling to 57 and 42 per cent for people in their 70s and 60s, respectively, according to recent data from Manitoba Public Health. (Rogelio V. Solis / The Associated Press photo)

Navigating booking systems, arranging for transportation, finding the appropriate provider and getting an appointment in a timely manner are all possible barriers to immunization, she said.

The province’s autumn campaign to promote booster shots, bivalent vaccines and flu shots also appears to have fallen flat, she said.

“They were really encouraging people that getting the bivalent was a good thing to do. So, it wasn’t like that wasn’t happening, but it just didn’t seem to materialize,” she said.

Porter said there’s a strong case for the province to increase public-health messaging surrounding COVID-19 vaccines and to take shots to people where they are.

“Now that things aren’t as pressurized, it seems that would be a great way of reaching a lot of at-risk individuals and not challenging them to first find out which pharmacy might have the vaccine that they want and make an appointment — it’s not that simple,” she said.

“And if it’s not really out there in the public that it’s something you should be doing, then you’re just going to let it lapse.”

“I think a lot of people have a false sense of security that the pandemic is over… It’s still around, people are still at risk and, clearly, older people are the most at risk.”–Michelle Porter

Anecdotally, Porter said uptake of COVID-19 boosters among personal-care home residents also appears to be falling. In the second week of January — the most recent data available — eight facilities had outbreaks.

Booster coverage within care homes was not immediately available from the province Tuesday.

The Free Press requested an interview with a provincial public-health official Tuesday, but was told no one was available.

In a statement, a provincial spokesperson said in addition to physician offices and pharmacies, public health continues to provide additional immunization opportunities within its regions.

“This includes holding pop-up clinics to reach all parts of the region, to reach groups at highest risk of complications due to COVID-19 and to reach structurally disadvantaged individuals,” the spokesperson wrote.

danielle.dasilva@freepress.com

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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Updated on Tuesday, January 24, 2023 7:59 PM CST: Fixes spelling of Carmen Nedohin

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