Opinion

With hundreds of COVID-19 patients piling up in hospital — some of them fully vaccinated — it may seem like the province’s immunization program isn’t working very well.

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With hundreds of COVID-19 patients piling up in hospital — some of them fully vaccinated — it may seem like the province’s immunization program isn’t working very well.

Just over three-quarters of eligible Manitobans have at least two doses of the vaccine. Why are so many still getting infected and ending up in hospital?

Government’s own data — the charts it presents prominently on its website — show only one-third of COVID-19 patients in hospital over the past six weeks were unvaccinated. For the vaccine hesitant, or those wondering whether it’s even worth getting a third dose, those don’t seem like encouraging numbers.

They’re not, but those statistics are grossly misleading.

<p>Data released this week shows how third-dose boosters significantly reduce the chances of hospitalization and death compared with being unvaccinated and compared with having only two doses. (Province of Manitoba)</p>

Data released this week shows how third-dose boosters significantly reduce the chances of hospitalization and death compared with being unvaccinated and compared with having only two doses. (Province of Manitoba)

They don’t accurately reflect the risk of hospitalization and death because the figures are not expressed as a percentage of the vaccinated and unvaccinated population.

It’s bewildering a government trying to convince the public vaccination is the only realistic path to normalcy would continue to publish such confusing and damaging data.

The anti-vaxxers love those statistics: they point to them daily as "proof" vaccines don’t work. The hesitant, or those who may be losing faith in the power of vaccines, use them as justification for not getting a third dose.

Government does publish some risk factors on its website.

It shows, for example, the unvaccinated are four times more likely than those with two doses or more to end up in hospital. But it’s confusing when those figures are presented on the same website that displays charts that seem to contract those rates.

<p>The unvaccinated are 139 times more likely to end up in an ICU than those with three doses. (Province of Manitoba)</p>

The unvaccinated are 139 times more likely to end up in an ICU than those with three doses. (Province of Manitoba)

The province (finally) eliminated the daily data it was publishing showing how many new infections and hospitalizations were among the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated. Those figures were the most misleading of all. Unless the data are presented on a per capita basis, as a percentage of the vaccinated and unvaccinated (and are age standardized), they won’t show risk factors.

If there were 50 murders each in Winnipeg and Brandon, for example, criminologists wouldn’t say the homicide rate was the same in both cities. They would present the data on a per capita basis to accurately compare regions. Immunologists do the same with vaccine data.

The province does have such data relating to COVID-19 vaccines, including statistics that compare risk factors between second and third doses. The data was presented this week by Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine task force.

It’s compelling information. It shows how third doses significantly reduce the chances of hospitalization and death compared with being unvaccinated or just having two doses.

Unfortunately, the data is buried on a government website where most people won’t see it. These statistics should be posted prominently online, updated regularly and plastered on billboards all over the province.

<p>The data show there were 230 unvaccinated people per 100,000 between Nov. 22 and Jan. 3 who were hospitalized in Manitoba. That’s six times higher than those with two doses and 26 times higher than those with three doses. (Province of Manitoba)</p>

The data show there were 230 unvaccinated people per 100,000 between Nov. 22 and Jan. 3 who were hospitalized in Manitoba. That’s six times higher than those with two doses and 26 times higher than those with three doses. (Province of Manitoba)

The data show there were 230 unvaccinated people per 100,000, between Nov. 22 and Jan. 3, who were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Manitoba. That’s six times higher than those with two doses and 26 times higher than those with three doses.

The difference between two and three doses is significant: 36 per 100,000 for two doses and nine per 100,000 for the booster shot. That’s why people need to get their third dose.

The risk factors are even more pronounced for those who require critical care treatment: the unvaccinated are 139 times more likely to end up in an ICU than those with three doses. (Read the full report at wfp.to/1pR.)

When displayed in clear, easy-to-understand graphs (like the ones presented by Reimer), it should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that getting fully vaccinated — including a third dose — substantially reduces the risk of hospitalization and death. That’s critically important as hospitals fill up with COVID-19 patients.

Sadly, there still doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency around getting the third dose. Only a third of eligible Manitobans are boosted and fewer than 8,000 per day on average are getting the third shot.

Providing the public with clear, updated data on the effectiveness of vaccines would help. Government’s communication strategy on this is failing badly.

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.