Thompson and Northern Manitoba got some good news Feb. 1 – and it wasn’t leaked information a day early that the groundhog saw or didn’t see his shadow – whichever one means an early end to winter which is never how it is in the north.
The good news came in the form of the first COVID-19 vaccinations being delivered at the immunization site set up at the Thompson Regional Community Centre (TRCC) and of the province deciding to allow stores to sell non-essential items in the north once again, 10 days after Manitoba’s other regions got the right to do that and to open other businesses like barber shops and hair salons too.
The vaccines weren’t the first to be administered in Thompson. That honour went to residents of Northern Spirit Manor personal care home beginning Jan. 23, about a year after the first story about the coronavirus appeared on the pages of this newspaper, which was about six weeks before the presence of the virus in Manitoba was confirmed by laboratory testing. Other northerners have already been vaccinated, including elderly residents of First Nations and others from the region who made the trip to Winnipeg to get immunized as soon as they were able. But the fact that the first vaccines were delivered at the TRCC is still significant because it just may be, as Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) CEO Helga Bryant put it on Monday, the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
But don’t start planning a party yet because 1) it’s still forbidden by public health orders and unwise if you don’t want COVID-19 to spread and 2) it could be 2022 before a majority of Manitobans are vaccinated against the virus. Still, the fact that non-First Nations people from the north have now started to get vaccinated without having to go to another part of the province is a good indication that Manitoba’s battle against COVID-19 is finally starting to tip in favour of the health care system instead of the virus.
The second bit of good news is that stores can now open to sell non-essential items in person once again for the first time in more than two months. Sure they can’t have as many customers as they could during non-pandemic times but being open enables small business owners to likely sell more than they could via online and delivery and curbside pickup orders. Hopefully, this means that more of them will be able to stay afloat in these tough economic times, though hopefully everybody doesn’t flock out all at once to buy items that they have managed to do without for two months and contribute to the spread of the virus in the process. Right now, however, although cases are higher in Thompson than they have been throughout most of the pandemic, the majority of the spread most days is taking place in the Island Lake health district, where stores have had the ability to sell non-essential items in person throughout the pandemic. It is a cause of concern that the isolated First Nations that make up that health district have more than 800 active cases, officially, of COVID-19 as of Feb. 2, but the reality is that public health orders haven’t been able to curb the spread there even as some of the measures threaten the livelihood of people in Thompson and elsewhere.
The pandemic has been tough on everyone and the measures taken to try to manage it haven’t always been fair to the people they affect. Early after the virus was first found in Manitoba last March, restrictions were brought in across the province, even though the north barely had any cases at all until late last summer. The provincial government couldn’t have known that that was how it was going to work out and so they acted with an abundance of caution. But that decision hurt businesses here and in other parts fo the province, some of which were just getting back to sort of normal in the fall before case numbers started rising and steps were taken once again to try to limit COVID-19’s spread.
As Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook noted while at the TRCC vaccination site on Monday, the battle against the virus is far from over, particularly if people start their victory lap before they’ve actually won. This year, in a lot of ways, is going to be a lot like the last nine months of 2020. But at least now, unlike at some points over the past 10 months, there is hint of hope on the horizon. The thing about the horizon, of course, is that despite how fast you travel towards it, it always seems to be just as far away. At some point we will reach the end of this pandemic tunnel and emerge into the light of a more normal reality, but that day remains a long way off as of yet.