Considering how shockingly low vaccine uptake is in some parts of Manitoba, the province should start thinking about a more regional-based pandemic reopening plan — if it wants to avoid a fourth wave.
When the Pallister government announced its colour-coded pandemic response system nearly a year ago, it was designed to match public health orders with COVID-19 case numbers (and other factors) by region. The principle was to ensure restrictions aligned with risk levels in each area of the province.
Public health officials followed the system early on, but it was largely abandoned after the second wave in winter 2020.
Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, has all but rejected the concept since, suggesting it is ineffective because people travel between regions.
There is some logic to that. However, as the province continues to reopen the economy based largely on vaccination rates, ignoring regional disparities could come with a heavy price.
Vaccine uptake in most of Manitoba's five health regions is well above 70 per cent. In Winnipeg, almost 81 per cent of people over age 12 have at least one dose. Interlake-Eastern and Northern Health are virtually tied at almost 75 per cent. Prairie Mountain is at 73.4 per cent.
However, Southern Health continues to lag at 59.5 per cent.
Of the 12 communities in Manitoba with the lowest vaccine uptake, 11 are in Southern Health, including the Rural Municipality of Stanley at 20.3 per cent (lowest in the province) and Winkler at 36.5 per cent. Those levels rival rates in some U.S. states where COVID-19 hospitalizations are again on the rise.
Even Point Douglas, lowest in Winnipeg at 69.1 per cent, has more than three times the number of people vaccinated (with one dose) per capita than the RM of Stanley.
There’s healthy debate among experts about what percentage of the population needs to be fully vaccinated to reopen safely, especially with the rise of the more contagious Delta variant. However, there is no question until a sizable portion of the population is fully vaccinated, life cannot return to normal.
Winnipeg is closer than any other part of the province to achieving that goal. Still, with only 64.5 per cent of Winnipeggers over the age of 12 fully immunized, it would be dangerous to lift all restrictions at this point, including mandatory masks indoors.
Prairie Mountain and Interlake-Eastern are close behind, both with 63.3 per cent fully vaccinated. Northern Health is slightly below that at 60.2 per cent.
Southern Health is much further behind on double doses, at only 48.2 per cent. That's significant considering it's the second most-populated region in the province behind Winnipeg.
Setting restrictions regionally based on local vaccine uptake is not about shaming and blaming. It’s about establishing science–based vaccine thresholds to determine when it’s safe to lift restrictions and by how much.
Southern Health is home to more than 180,000 people over the age of 12 who are eligible for the vaccine. Of those, only 86,807 are fully immunized.
One of the arguments against imposing restrictions by region is it would punish those living in low uptake areas who have been vaccinated.
It’s a fair point. However, the alternative is punishing an entire city the size of Winnipeg for the same reason (if measures were set provincewide and influenced by the lowest vaccination numbers in the province).
Setting restrictions regionally based on local vaccine uptake is not about shaming and blaming. It’s about establishing science-based vaccine thresholds to determine when it’s safe to lift restrictions and by how much. It would also act as a powerful incentive for people to get vaccinated.
What is certain is it’s not safe to eliminate public health orders provincewide when a vaccination level is as low as it is in areas such as Southern Health. Most experts say that number needs to be well above 80 per cent, likely closer to 85 to 90 per cent.
As long as some parts of the province continue to have persistently low vaccination levels, a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening the economy would be ill-advised.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.