Significant gaps in COVID-19 vaccination levels across Manitoba are putting communities at risk for increased spread, as infection rates in regions with low vaccine uptake begin to overtake the capital city.
"We really are pleading with these communities to go and get your vaccine, get yourself protected, but just as importantly, get everybody around you protected," Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the COVID-19 vaccine task force, said Wednesday.
"Experiencing both the higher risk of outbreaks and the higher risk of severe outcomes is not something we want to see for any community."
As of Wednesday, provincial data showed the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority — where at least 81.7 per cent of residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine — had a per capita infection rate of 15.7 active cases per 100,000.
In Southern Health, where just 60.4 per cent of the eligible population has signed up for the shot, the per capita infection rate sat at 24.5 cases per 100,000.
The rate increased in smaller Southern Health districts such as Stanley, which surrounds the cities of Morden and Winkler, where the case rate was 71 per 100,000, with an immunization rate of 20.7 per cent, the lowest in the province.
Even as the province inches towards its target of fully vaccinating more than 75 per cent of the eligible population, as long as substantial pockets of the population remain unvaccinated, the benefits of overall high immunization levels will be diminished, Reimer said.
"In reality, when you have big disparities between where the highest amount of coverage is and then you have pockets where there’s not a lot of protection, you’re still going to struggle to reach herd immunity," she said.
"So if there are communities that have very low rates of vaccine uptake, they’re still going to be at risk for outbreaks, there’s still going to be transmission in those communities."
While Southern Health has fallen behind the provincial immunization rate of 79.1 per cent, regions with comparable vaccine uptake levels are also struggling as new COVID-19 cases are detected.
Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority has an active case rate of 159.9 per 100,000, with the majority of infections being reported in the Fisher/Peguis district west of Lake Winnipeg and the Powerview/Pine Falls district, on the east side.
The two areas have immunization rates of 69.6 per cent and 70.3 per cent, respectively.
The Northern Regional Health Authority reported an active case rate of 80.2 per 100,000; Prairie Mountain was at 25.5. The regions have vaccination rates of 75.6 and 74 per cent, respectively.
Both the vaccine task force and respective regional health authorities continue to do outreach in communities where immunization levels are low to help boost confidence in the vaccine, Reimer said. Collaboration with church and community leaders and large employers continue.
"We will reach out again to the same leadership to improve accessibility, the physicians and pharmacists in the region are working hard to make vaccines accessible to all of their patients, and we also are going to continue to do things like town halls," Reimer said.
The task force is providing more private options for people to be vaccinated in case they may be feeling pressured by friends, family and co-workers to not take the vaccine, she said.
The province’s public health experts are expecting the novel coronavirus to surge again in the fall, based on the seasonality of other respiratory illnesses, Reimer said.
Though the impact may be felt acutely in communities where immunization rates are low, public health is cautiously optimistic the number of people who end up in hospital is going to be curbed.
"While we will see some potential discrepancy in communities that have lower (vaccine) rates, for the most part, even areas of the province with lower rates still have a good proportion of their population vaccinated, so we still would see lower severe outcomes than we have in previous waves," Reimer said.
"We’re looking forward to being able to have a different approach to how we manage things in the future, with the knowledge that outbreaks will likely be smaller and will likely result in fewer hospitalizations and fewer deaths."
On Wednesday, Manitoba reported 26 new COVID-19 cases, including 15 in Interlake-Eastern, and a total of 497 active infections.
Of the eligible population, 79.1 per cent of have had at least one dose of the vaccine, and 67.8 per cent were fully immunized.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
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