OTTAWA — The oldest Manitobans are most likely to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and have fewer years of life left than the average person.
Yet they won’t be exempted from any pandemic restrictions for the coming weeks.
"It’s not so much about what (people) do with one or two doses, it’s more about the vulnerable, remaining part of the community," Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, told reporters Thursday.
Njoo said there was consensus among provincial top doctors that there are not enough vaccinations yet to consider peeling back restrictions for the 3.5 per cent of Canadians who are fully vaccinated.
"It’s just a very prudent approach that we keep at it. That we don’t create — I think in my mind, anyway — a situation of the haves and have-nots," Njoo said.
He argued Canada is still far off from the United States, where 36 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.
COVID-19 is deadlier to older people, whom most provinces have prioritized for receiving both vaccine doses because they have weaker immune responses to the coronavirus.
As of Friday, Manitoba had administered just under 80,000 second shots, mostly for older Manitobans, as well as those working in health care and younger people with severe conditions.
There have been enough second shots administered to cover everyone over age 99, as well as 72 per cent of Manitobans aged 90 to 99, and 19 per cent of those aged 80 to 89.
Many of those people live in personal care homes, which have been skittish about allowing fully vaccinated residents to mingle with other people.
Dr. Michelle Porter, director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba, said that makes sense when the province is posting record-high COVID-19 numbers.
"We’re still in a precarious situation, particularly considering what’s happening in hospitals," she said.
She noted officials have said Manitobans took on riskier activities than what was allowed each time restrictions were loosened.
"I think we’ve seen here that when you give people an inch they take a mile, in terms of what they’re doing," she said.
Porter added there is still vaccine hesitancy in the population, including among care-home staff.
Vaccines offer great protection against severe illness, but they’re not infallible. Some experts use the analogy of a fire-proof suit, which is meant to limit the risk of injury but doesn’t remove all risk of entering a burning home.
Porter said communal-living residences should consider stop-gap measures to boost quality of life until society can return to normal, such as improved Wi-Fi to allow people to connect virtually.
She was particularly concerned about older people who are newly admitted into nursing homes and sometimes have to isolate for two weeks in a single room. That’s during a transition that would have already been disruptive in pre-pandemic times.
"Anything that can be done to make sure those residents are getting as much engagement as possible within the restrictions is important."
At the Convalescent Home, Sherry Heppner says residents have a mix of opinions, with some pleading for more freedoms and others worried about more contagious variants.
"It’s a tough call, and we really have to get the percentage of vaccinated people up (in the general population) before I personally can (be comfortable)," Heppner said.
Of about 75 residents, only a handful haven’t been vaccinated, some on the advice of doctors, due to existing health conditions.
Convalescent has 84 beds, many in shared rooms, and lost more than 20 residents during a COVID-19 outbreak she calls traumatic.
"We just can’t open our doors up yet, because the group that we are caring for, and love so much, are just so vulnerable," Heppner said.
She hopes that when Manitoba’s current third wave recedes, enough people will be immunized inside and outside the care home, allowing fully vaccinated people to come indoors and hug their loved ones.
Heppner and Porter both said that in-person social interaction is crucial for older populations.
Porter said it’s clear from other countries with higher vaccination rates that nursing homes will be able to loosen up in a few months.
"A few more weeks is going to make a big difference, in this whole pandemic trajectory," she said.
In any case, Heppner’s staff are planning outdoor, distanced visits this summer, including in converted trailers, officially called pods. She said regular internal events with resident tamp down on the loneliness.
"It’s small things; it doesn’t have to be grandiose."