COVID-19 hitting Manitoba seniors less hard since March 1, latest statistics suggest

Beverly Suek holds up a framed photo and easily names each of the seven children — all smiling on a summer’s day. The 75-year-old Winnipegger hasn’t been able to hug her grandchildren since the pandemic started.

“I told them they owed me a whole bunch of hugs when this is over, so I’m counting them up,” she said.

That’s one reason Suek got her first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine two weeks ago.That, and because the virus hits Manitoba seniors the hardest. But that trend seems to be changing.

Data from the provincial government suggest Manitoba seniors are seeing fewer severe consequences from COVID-19, relative to the rest of the population.

From the start of the pandemic until March 2021, people 70 and older made up 80 per cent of all deaths related to the virus, and 44 per cent of all hospitalizations. 

But between March 1 and  April 11, the rates for those 70 and older have fallen to 59 per cent of all deaths and 35 per cent of all hospitalizations.

Relative case counts have also fallen for people over 70, from 11 per cent of all COVID cases before March 1, to just five per cent since then.

“That’s exactly what we would expect as a result of a successful start of a vaccination campaign,” said Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr.

“This to me says that was the right target in terms of the first round of prioritization. I know that we haven’t vaccinated everybody in that age group, but that is why we started there — because of the disproportionate impact.”

Flouting public health rules could put elderly at risk

But Carr warns this doesn’t mean the problem is solved for older adults.

“I have concerns just about what the impact of our behaviour and decisions are. Well, grandma and grandpa or older people that we know have been vaccinated. So let’s maybe bend the rules a little bit more and visit get together. I’m a little bit concerned about that and letting our guard down,” said Carr.

“We want to be very careful right now about giving the virus or any of the variants an opportunity to spread and kind of take hold, whether it’s different age groups or, you know, there is a possibility of reinfection.… Let’s not let our guard down too early and put our most elderly residents at risk just yet.”

Personal care homes looking better, but still at risk

The numbers offer some hope for Michelle Porter, the director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba.

“The personal care home situation is just a dramatically different situation from what we saw in the fall,” she said. ” I am still concerned about people living in the community, those people that might be really challenged to get to vaccine clinics.”

Porter also raises concerns and questions about how many health-care workers are vaccinated, how many seniors in congregate living settings are getting the shots, how the vaccines work with the coronavirus variants, and current outbreaks in Manitoba personal care homes.

Michelle Porter is the director of University of Manitoba’s Centre on Aging. (Submitted by Michelle Porter)

“While things are certainly looking a lot better than they they did say in October, November, December, I think we still do need to be quite cautious,” said Porter.

“While the cases might be mostly in younger people right now, that won’t necessarily stay that way, particularly with our loosened restrictions and people finding it, you know, more challenging to stay away from the people that they are close to.”

Beverly Suek holds up a photo of her grandchildren. She says she hasn’t been able to really hug them since the pandemic started. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Suek says she does feel a bit safer with her first dose of a vaccine, but she’ll put off hugging her family for now since there’s so much uncertainty.

“We don’t know if we can pass it on to others. I wish I knew the answer to that,” said Suek.

“And it worries me a bit about how fast we can get the second [dose], because it seems like we’re getting supplies, but we really don’t have the systems in place to really give the vaccination out quickly.”

“I think we mostly miss family. You miss those years. You don’t get those back when you can’t go and see them and be with them and play with them. I think that’s stressing everybody out.”