The last week of April saw good news and bad news for the north and the province as a whole when it comes to the seemingly interminable COVID-19 pandemic, about to stretch into its 15th month in Manitoba.
On the bright side, northerners and those who work here no longer have to watch the age of vaccine eligibility creep slowly downward a year or two at a time, as vaccine task force medical lead Dr. Joss Reimer announced April 26 that the Northern Regional Health Authority, as well as Churchill, where health services are administered by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, was one of the latest additions to the province’s priority area list when it comes to vaccinations. As of Monday morning, anyone 18 or over who lives in the north or who lives elsewhere but regularly works here, can book appointments to be vaccinated at super sites and pop-up sites. This news follows on the announcement last week that the Ma-Mow-We-Tak Friendship Centre in Thompson would be the site of a clinic aiming to immunize more Indigenous people. Due to open the week of May 3, the site will even provide some walk-in services for those who are unable or unwilling to book an appointment.
More people getting immunized in the north, where many First Nations people have already been vaccinated, is a good thing moving forward. How we got here, of course, is another story.
During a technical briefing about the vaccination eligibility expansion, Reimer noted that the north was added to the priority list because people here at at greater risk, have had more severe outcomes and have poorer access to medical treatment in general. Infection rates were higher here during the second wave and so far into the third wave. The reason northerners don’t have to wait any longer to get vaccinated is that they are more in need of vaccination to protect them.
The bad news is that, while the rate of new COVID-19 infections in the north is holding steady, it is increasing in other Manitoba health regions, some of which have caught up to the north when it comes to the number of new cases per day, while Winnipeg has blown past us. Much of this is due to the greater transmissibility of COVID-19 variants, which have resulted in 46 infections in the north so far, and hundreds of others throughout the province. Part of it is also due to recent loosening of public health orders and people gathering together more often and for longer because they can, even if maybe they shouldn’t.
There are lots of sayings about how mistakes being how you learn, but when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t always evident that that is the case. Manitoba got off pretty lightly in the first wave, the north almost entirely, and people took that to mean that we had beaten it. They resumed more normal activities and helped usher in the second wave, which sickened thousands and killed hundreds. Months of strict restrictions later, as things slowly opened up, it may have been tempting to imagine that we wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, but as chief provincial pubic health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said on Monday, the province is basically in the same place it was at the end of October, just before the second wave exploded. Hopefully this time around, things won’t be so dire, not thanks to people necessarily smartening up but because of the availability of vaccines.