Now is the time to speed up vaccinations before the ‘inevitable’ third wave of COVID-19

During his tumultuous final year as Manitoba’s health minister, Cameron Friesen may best be remembered for telling doctors not to worry about the pandemic’s burgeoning second wave.

“Manitobans need most to understand that the people in charge have got this,” Friesen said on Tuesday, Nov. 3, when 95 people in this province had died from COVID-19.

Friesen was shuffled out of the health gig two months and 630 more COVID deaths later. The physicians who raised red flags about Manitoba’s pandemic readiness turned out to be as accurate as an atomic clock.

Heather Stefanson had not served as health minister anywhere near as long as Friesen on Tuesday, April 6, a date she may have uttered her own “we got this” epitaph.

Asked how well she believed the provincial vaccination program is proceeding, Stefanson marvelled at Manitoba’s ability to vaccinate more than 4,000 people a day.

“I think that that’s a very positive thing for Manitobans,” Stefanson said during a pre-budget news conference.

“I think we, we’re doing quite well. Obviously there’s challenges, and we’ll address those as they come forward.”

It would be fair to suggest those challenges have arrived. The question is whether the province is prepared to meet them.

While Manitoba claims to possess the capacity to administer 20,918 vaccine doses a day, the reality is the province is coming nowhere near that goal or even a far more modest one laid out last week by vaccine team logistics leader Johanu Botha.

On March 31, Botha said Manitoba would administer 6,566 vaccine doses a day in the coming week.

The province fell short of the mark. In the ensuing seven days, an average of 5,491 doses a day were given, according to the vaccine team’s running daily tally.

This shortfall is not a disaster. It’s also not an ideal situation for a province that the chief public health officer describes as being “in a race” to vaccinate its adult populace before more contagious variants of concern spark a third wave of COVID-19.

“There is a third wave coming our way,” Dr. Brent Roussin said on Tuesday.

The severity of that wave “will depend on how many Manitobans we can get vaccinated prior to it arriving here,” he said.

Manitoba, island of calm

At this moment, Manitoba is an island of relative calm among Canadian provinces west of the Maritimes. Every other province from B.C. to Quebec is already experiencing that third wave.

On Tuesday, the seven-day average COVID infection rate in Manitoba was 37 cases per 100,000 people. In neighbouring Saskatchewan and Ontario, the same rate was 3.5 times higher at 130 cases per 100,000 over seven days.

It’s plausible, if not likely, that Manitoba has delayed the third wave through the diligence of Manitoba public health and this provincial government.

Alone among provinces west of the Maritimes, Manitoba reinstated a mandatory interprovincial quarantine in an effort to slow the spread of variants of concern. Manitoba also held on to indoor socialization and indoor dining restrictions, two of the toughest measures in the provincial pandemic-fighting arsenal.

What this means is Manitoba earned a few more weeks to get shots into arms, but as many Manitobans have noticed, the province does not appear to be taking advantage of the extra time.

Manitoba has not hit its mark for administering the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

On the surface, it appears the vast majority of vaccine doses are languishing in storage instead of getting injected into arms. On Tuesday, Manitoba had administered 216,718 doses, while another 155,312 had yet to be doled out.

In reality, most of those doses are not sitting idle. About 72,600 Astra-Zeneca doses are distributed through doctors’ offices and pharmacies, which don’t appear to report jabs to the province with any urgency. No fewer than 23,000 Moderna doses have been distributed to First Nations, which are not included in the provincial tally.

That leaves what Stefanson described as 60,000 Pfizer doses that have yet to be administered. Stefanson said they are all accounted for in terms of appointments planned for the coming weeks, while Roussin said Manitoba would exhaust its entire vaccine supply in one week if additional shipments do not arrive.

These two statements appeared to contradict each other.

If Roussin were to be taken at face value, then Manitoba plans to administer 8,571 Pfizer doses per day in the coming week. That’s what it would take to whittle a 60,000-dose Pfizer supply down to nothing in one week.

However, Manitoba does not appear to be planning to scale up vaccinations to 8,571 Pfizer doses a day in the coming week. Existing Pfizer appointments are spread out well into April.

Late Tuesday, Stefanson’s office issued a clarification. It turns out the 60,000 additional doses included both Pfizer supplies destined for supersites and what the vaccine team calls “a significant chunk” of Moderna doses destined for rural pop-ups and mobile vaccination teams.

So when Stefanson said all 60,000 doses are accounted for, she was not talking about the next week alone. Rural and mobile doses take longer to administer.

In other words, the province appears to have a rationale for holding back doses. It is, however, incumbent on the province to communicate this more clearly.

After witnessing the province’s failure to ensure adequate COVID-19 testing and tracing was in place during the early stages of the second wave, with fatal results, it is fair for Manitobans to be skeptical of the province’s ability to scale up vaccinations before what Roussin called an inevitable third wave.

It would also be fair to suggest Manitobans may take issue with Stefanson’s assessment of a vaccination program that continues to fall short of its own targets as “a very positive thing.”

As Roussin might say: Now is not the time for spin.

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