Manitoba marks 1 year since COVID-19 vaccination campaign’s start as Omicron variant threatens

It’s been one year since the first the doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were shot into the arms of Manitobans, and provincial officials honoured those who were the first to roll up their sleeves at an event marking the anniversary Thursday morning.

Dr. Brian Sharkey, a longtime family doctor, said being one of the first to get the vaccine allowed him to continue to take care of his patients without fear of getting sick himself. 

“I just want to do my job and the vaccine let me do that,” he said at a news conference Thursday at the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences on McDermot Avenue. 

The woman who gave Sharkey his shot that first morning, Lori Ann Laramee, who is now the clinical lead of the province’s vaccine implementation task force, said it was a bittersweet day.

While it marked new hope in the fight against the pandemic, she also heard many heartbreaking stories from health-care workers about the devastating things they had witnessed in the months prior. 

“What I quickly realized that day was what it meant to those who sat in the chair in front of me,” she said. 

“It was a day of happiness as it represented hope for our province. It was day of sadness for me. I think I just saw and heard so many of the stories of what my colleagues had seen in the months previous to the first vaccine being delivered.”

Health Minister Audrey Gordon, Dr. Joss Reimer and and University of Manitoba president Michael Benarroch also spoke at the event.

Impact of vaccines

The historic first vaccines in Manitoba were given to front-line health-care workers who met specific work and age criteria. At the time, the shots were thought of as the beginning to the end of the pandemic, though Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin warned that we would likely still be fighting the pandemic for many more months. 

Though the pandemic is far from over, in recent months the vaccines have allowed Manitobans to return to pre-pandemic activities, with many businesses and services reopening to those who are fully vaccinated. 

Public health statistics show that widespread vaccinations have accompanied a vastly reduced COVID-19 case-fatality rate. 

During the first year of the pandemic in Manitoba, which began with the province’s first case on March 12, 2020, 2.8 per cent of the Manitobans who caught the coronavirus succumbed to the illness. 

As of November, Manitoba’s COVID case-fatality rate is 1.1 per cent for the second year of the pandemic, according to the same statistics.

In Manitoba, the unvaccinated are 5.5 times more likely to become infected, 8.4 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, 19 times more likely to end up in ICU with COVID-19, and 11.8 times more likely to die from a coronavirus infection than those who are fully vaccinated, Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s deputy chief public health officer, said last week.

Omicron threat

As of Wednesday, 78.1 per cent of eligible Manitobans have two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 83.9 per cent have at least one dose. This includes children age five to 11, who became eligible last month after the federal government approved the pediatric Pfizer-BioNTech shot last month. 

There are also 10.5 per cent of eligible Manitobans with three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, something health officials are pushing for in reponse to the looming threat of the Omicron variant. 

On Wednesday, Roussin presented data that says Omicron’s reproduction number is four times that of Delta. At this rate, Manitoba could see 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per day early in the new year if the variant takes hold.

However, there is still insufficient information to know the severity of symptoms caused by the variant, Roussin said. 

Of the six Omicron cases identified in Manitoba thus far, only one person was showing symptoms as of Wednesday. Four of the six cases were in people not fully vaccinated, Roussin’s report said. 

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