Opinion

Manitobans are still dying from COVID-19 and some were fully vaccinated. If immunization is so effective, how come we’re still seeing so many deaths?

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Manitobans are still dying from COVID-19 and some were fully vaccinated. If immunization is so effective, how come we’re still seeing so many deaths?

The answer is straightforward. The problem is, government does a poor job of communicating it.

Public health officials announced 11 new COVID-19 deaths Monday from the previous three days. On Nov. 25, 12 new deaths were reported. Between the first week of October and mid-November, Manitoba Health reported 78 new COVID-19 deaths in its weekly respiratory surveillance reports.

It’s far less than the number of deaths the province logged during the third wave of the pandemic when vaccination coverage was lower. It’s nowhere near the 60 to 120 deaths per week Manitoba reported during the second wave, prior to vaccines.

Still, a lot of people are dying from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, far more than the number of fatal cases from influenza during a bad flu year.

If 85 per cent of Manitobans over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated, why are there still so many deaths?

Out of the 78 recent deaths in Manitoba, 59 were not fully vaccinated. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files)

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Out of the 78 recent deaths in Manitoba, 59 were not fully vaccinated. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files)

The short answer is coverage isn't high enough; most deaths are among the unvaccinated. Out of the 78 recent deaths, 59 (75 per cent) were not fully vaccinated. There have only been 40 fully vaccinated deaths since the beginning of the vaccine rollout a year ago.

Most of those have been people over the age of 70 (70 per cent), eight were in their 60s, three in their 50s, and one in their 40s.

No one under 40 who is fully vaccinated has died from COVID-19 in Manitoba.

That only tells part of the story. Because most people are fully vaccinated in Manitoba, the proportion of deaths among the unvaccinated is far higher than the vaccinated. It’s more pronounced than 75-25 per cent split suggests.

The 59 unvaccinated deaths since early October represent 16 per 100,000 people not fully immunized. That’s well above the two per 100,000 fully vaccinated who have died during the same period.

Even that doesn’t tell the full story (as some number-cruncher experts have pointed out).

Among the unvaccinated, close to half are children under 12 who were not eligible for vaccines until last week. They won’t be fully immunized until January or February at the earliest. That means of those who have been eligible for the shot, but are not fully immunized, the death rate is closer to 25 per 100,000 people — more than 12 times the death rate for the fully vaccinated.

Of those who have been eligible for the shot, but are not fully immunized, the death rate is closer to 25 per 100,000 people, more than 12 times the death rate for the fully vaccinated. (Matt Rourke / The Associated Press files)

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Of those who have been eligible for the shot, but are not fully immunized, the death rate is closer to 25 per 100,000 people, more than 12 times the death rate for the fully vaccinated. (Matt Rourke / The Associated Press files)

The provincial government does a poor job of providing that context.

It refuses to release the vaccination status of individual COVID-19 deaths (citing privacy reasons). It only reports the percentage of people who died from the disease who were fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated or unvaccinated in weekly pie charts.

It provides the cumulative number of vaccinated and unvaccinated deaths since the beginning of the vaccine rollout. However, it doesn't provide the proportion of deaths among the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

If it did, and reported such data on its online dashboard, Manitobans would get a far more accurate picture of how well vaccines are preventing deaths.

People are still dying from COVID-19 because there’s a small, yet persistent group of Manitobans who refuse to get vaccinated. Some are hardcore anti-vaxxers who may also believe the Earth is flat, while others are victims of dangerous misinformation that circulates on social media.

Either way, they are keeping the virus alive at high enough rates that many who are unvaccinated are succumbing to the disease.

Some (albeit a tiny minority) who are fully vaccinated (but who don’t mount a strong enough immune response, because no vaccine is 100 per cent effective) are also dying.

The higher the vaccine uptake, the fewer the COVID-19 deaths and the less virus there is in circulation to cause breakthrough cases in those who are fully immunized.

That’s how vaccines work: they break the chain of transmission and protect the most vulnerable. That’s how they have worked to fight other infectious diseases, such as polio and smallpox. That’s how they are working to fight COVID-19.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.