A painless prick to his arm — the first of two vaccine doses George Freeman will receive this month — signalled a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic for the Manitoba senior and his home province.
"I didn’t feel the needle," said Freeman, 79, after exiting the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg on Monday afternoon.
"I waited a long time for it," the member of Peguis First Nation said. "I was only out of the house once last year for my flu shot, and I’m looking forward to being able to make an appointment with my doctor."
On Monday, the province gave the first COVID-19 vaccines to members of the general public, after opening its appointment books last week to people over 95 years old and First Nations people over 75.
Freeman, who came to the clinic with his wife Kathy from their home in St. Andrews, stopped to chat with a Free Press reporter outside the clinic while waiting for their ride.
Freeman said he was the sixth member of the public that day to get a shot — and recommended others book an appointment when they get their chance.
Kathy Freeman said the experience once they arrived at the clinic was easy, with plenty of room for social distancing, and they had no complaints. The couple is looking forward to having their children and family members visit more often once George is fully vaccinated.
"He’s the eldest in his whole family, so he’s the one everyone worries about," she said.
Prior to extending offers to the public, only select health-care workers and individuals the province had prioritized for vaccines based on employment could make an appointment.
As of Monday, Manitobans born on or before Dec. 31, 1930, and First Nations people born on or before Dec. 31, 1950, are eligible for the vaccine.
Meanwhile, at an immunization table inside the convention centre, and surrounded by a dozen other people getting their shots, Nina Luhowy said she was feeling good, as an immunizer reviewed her paperwork.
"Same, like old lady," Luhowy, 93, joked, before pulling down her pink sweater in anticipation of the needle.
Within 30 seconds, the first dose had been plunged into Luhowy’s arm.
"So far, so good," Luhowy said, adding she’s looking forward to the day she is fully vaccinated with both required doses.
"I guess that’s everybody is doing that way: waiting. Would it help? Who knows. But takes a long time ‘til everybody gets through with these two needles."
So far, 76,670 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been delivered in Manitoba, including 28,890 second doses.
Over the past four weeks, many personal care home residents received their second dose of the vaccine, as immunization teams visited 125 licensed facilities throughout February.
The province said finalized data from its immunization campaign in personal care homes was not available Monday.
Some seniors and personal care home residents on reserves have also been vaccinated, as doses set aside for First Nations communities are distributed through the Manitoba First Nation Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team.
Provincial data shows 8,366 total doses have been given to people who identify as First Nations, as of Monday.
An estimated 4,800 people residing in assisted living facilities and retirement homes will also have a chance to be immunized at their home. Immunization teams are scheduled to visit 120 such facilities this week.
In a release sent Monday afternoon, the province said the mass vaccination clinic at the former Selkirk and District General Hospital will open March 8.
Appointments are available in Winnipeg, Brandon, Thompson and Selkirk. The province has yet to announce when it will open appointments for a clinic in Morden.
Also this week, the province said members of several northern communities will travel into Thompson to be vaccinated at the recreation centre "super site."
The first communities participating in the pilot program transporting people to Thompson for immunization include Wabowden, Herb Lake Landing, Snow Lake, Grand Rapids and Misipawistik.
The communities were selected based on their readiness and residents' ability to travel for the vaccine, according to the provincial government. More information about the vaccine rollout in northern Manitoba will be released soon, officials said.
To date, 108,460 doses have been delivered to Manitoba. Another 16,380 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are expected to arrive this week.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.