Manitoba’s low bivalent vaccine uptake worries health-care experts as XBB.1.5 variant spreads

Manitoba health-care workers and researchers say low uptake of bivalent COVID-19 vaccines is concerning, especially in light of a highly contagious variant of the virus that causes the illness now spreading in Canada and the U.S.

Just 17.5 per cent of Manitobans had received at least one dose of a bivalent vaccine — one that targets both the original strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and the Omicron variant — as of the end of last month, according to data provided by the province.

Just under 21 per cent of people had received any dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — whether an initial dose or a booster shot — in the last six months, the province said.

Doctors Manitoba president Dr. Candace Bradshaw says that’s concerning in the face of XBB.1.5 — an Omicron subvariant which has been nicknamed “Kraken.”

Although the province says there were no confirmed cases of that subvariant here as of Tuesday, “I suspect Kraken is already alive and well in the province — it’s just a matter of detecting it,” Bradshaw said in a Wednesday interview.

“If you’re somebody who hasn’t had the shot, you can get it probably within the next 24 hours or less, and I would not hesitate to go and get it.”

Bivalent vaccines appear most successful at preventing serious illness from Omicron and its constantly evolving subvariants, research has suggested.

Bradshaw says XBB.1.5 is the most transmissible coronavirus variant to date and could make many Manitobans ill, especially those who are more at risk of severe outcomes.

That’s especially worrisome given that “right now, the health-care system really has no flexibility or tolerance to increase its capacity whatsoever,” she said.

“I would say we’re teetering on a very fine edge.”

Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon said earlier this week she’s aware of the concerning trends in other jurisdictions.

“I have regular briefings with our our Provincial Chief Public Health Officer Dr. [Brent] Roussin,” she said at a news conference on Monday.

“I have one this week and we’re paying close attention to what’s happening not just here in Manitoba, but across around the world and nationally as well.”

Jason Hoeppner, a pharmacist and owner of the Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy on Osborne Street in Winnipeg, says there was initially a rush at his pharmacy of people who wanted a bivalent dose, but that’s dropping off.

A man with short grey hair in a blue polo shirt that says "The Medicine Shoppe" stands in front of shelves of prescription drugs.
Jason Hoeppner, the owner Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy in Winnipeg, says he has typically seen increases in the number of people looking for vaccines following government information or news coverage about COVID-19’s severe impacts on the community. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

His pharmacy is now offering the bivalent shot three days a week because of low uptake, and may reduce that further if the trend continues, he said.

He says throughout the pandemic, he has seen increases in the number of people rolling up their sleeves when government information or news coverage would come out about the severe impacts of COVID-19 on the community.

“Depending on what sort of illness trends we’re seeing in Manitoba and the severity, and how many people are getting infected, it’s fairly predictable that there’s always a little bit of a bump,” he said.

Not enough provincial data: prof

That coverage has tapered off, but the severe outcomes haven’t.

More Manitobans died in 2022 either from COVID-19 or in association with the disease than during each of the first two years of the pandemic, according to data from the province.

However, the province’s regular reporting of data on the illness has dropped off since the final provincial pandemic restrictions were lifted last spring.

Michelle Driedger, a professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba, thinks that lack of reporting had an impact on people’s decisions to get vaccines.

“I don’t think it’s fair to just say the public is kind of getting lax in their response and they’re not accepting these boosters, and maybe we just need to throw more information at them to get them to do the right thing,” she said.

“You can’t expect your population to be doing certain things if you’re not prepared — as a government, as a public health system — to be providing even some data … [on] ‘What do we even know right now?'”

A woman wearing a stethoscope stands in a medical examination room.
Dr. Candace Bradshaw, president of Doctors Manitoba, says people shouldn’t delay in getting the bivalent COVID-19 booster. (Tyson Koschik/ CBC)

Bradshaw echoes those concerns. She thinks it would be helpful for Manitobans to hear from public health officials about current risks and ways to avoid widespread illness.

“I think things like that do go a long way and give everyone a bit of a refresher. We don’t want to go back to where we were,” she said.

“Let’s let’s do some really obvious, easy, basic things, such as getting vaccinated, testing ourselves and staying home when we’re sick.”