Why Manitoba’s COVID-19 immunization rollout hasn’t really started yet

At the current pace of vaccine administration in this province, every Manitoban over the age of 15 will be fully immunized against COVID-19 some time in early 2027.

Right now, the province is doling out about 1,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines every day. A full immunization requires two shots. 

As of Monday — the last time Manitoba reported vaccination numbers — 10,353 of the 29,530 doses shipped to this province had been administered.

This places Manitoba second-to-last among Canadian provinces when it comes to getting available doses into arms. Only Nova Scotia has been slower to administer its vaccine supplies, at this early stage of the game.

The apparent inability to get needles into arms has critics of Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government up in arms. On Tuesday, Manitoba opposition leaders urged the province to pick up the pace of immunizations.

“What else are they doing right now that is preventing them from fully using the doses of the vaccine that we do have on hand here in Manitoba right now?” NDP Leader Wab Kinew asked.

That appeared to be a fair question on Tuesday. In a couple of weeks, it will be irrelevant.

Even at Manitoba’s low current pace of immunization, this province expects to exhaust the majority of its Pfizer-BioNTech supply by the beginning of February.

Manitoba will have next to no doses on hand by the beginning of March, according to an immunization rollout plan based on federal vaccine shipments.

While Manitoba has been slower than eight other provinces to dole out the doses it has on hand, those 29,530 doses don’t amount to very much, considering there are more than 1.1 million Manitobans over the age of 15 who require a combined 2.2 million vaccine doses in order to be fully immunized.

“Remember that we’re only going to get enough [vaccine] in Manitoba for about one per cent of the population by the end of this month, approximately two per cent by the end of February,” Pallister said on Tuesday. “

“Less than 10 per cent of folks will be vaccinated in the first quarter, under the current federal delivery schedule.”

No big shipments on the horizon

While Pallister is slightly off the mark with his first statement — the rollout plan projects more like two per cent of Manitoba’s population will be fully immunized by the end of this month and closer to four per cent by the end of February — the premier’s big-picture analysis appears to be correct.

Not much Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna product is getting here any time soon. The real question is what happens in the spring, when larger vaccine shipments should arrive, potentially from more manufacturers.

If Manitoba intends to vaccinate everyone aged 16 and older this calendar year, the province must be able to dole out 6,200 to 7,000 vaccine doses per day, depending on how long it takes to pick up the pace of immunization from the current 1,000-dose-a-day rate.

 “We are ready to increase our clinic capacity as soon as the doses are available,” said Dr. Joss Reimer, a spokesperson for the provincial vaccination effort.

“The goal, regardless of whether we stick with only Pfizer and Moderna, or if there are in the future other vaccines that are approved, is to provide all of those doses when they are available in Manitoba.”

Reimer would not, however, say how many doses the province hopes to dole out every day, once vaccine shipments allow vaccination efforts to scale up. She could not say when a cumbersome telephone-appointment process will be replaced with online booking.

Reimer also could not say whether the province has all the workers it needs to conduct such an effort, though she insisted applications for these positions exceed the demand.

Scaling up the pace of vaccinations from 1,000 to 7,000 a day does not appear to be an impossible task, even for a province that was slow to respond to the COVID-19 surge last fall.

Manitoba will soon operate three provincial vaccination clinics. It can deploy mobile vaccination teams, such as the ones working to immunize personal care home residents right now. Health-care workers on First Nations have joined the vaccination effort.

Potentially, so could general practitioners, pharmacists and other health-care professionals across the province.

The problem is, it does not look like this scale-up will happen quickly in Manitoba or anywhere else in Canada. This is unfortunate, considering the spike in COVID-19 cases in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Manitoba, which endured the worst infection rates in Canada in November, appears to be getting the pandemic under control now. Case counts in this province seem to have plateaued.

The question is whether the collective adherence to pandemic restrictions can hold for another few months, especially when the most restrictive measures are eased.

Manitobans can expect to continue wearing masks in public and observe bans on large gatherings many months after most businesses are allowed to swing open their doors again.

The reason for this is simple: It will be many months before most of us have access to a vaccine needle.