All Manitobans could receive first vaccine dose in time for Bombers’ opener

The CFL’s dream of fans in the stands in time for 2021 opening day received a big boost in at least one city.

Manitoba’s Vaccine Implementation Task Force released new projections showing that all eligible adults in the province could receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by May 18.

In a less optimistic scenario, young adults aged 18 to 29 would have to wait until June. The CFL is scheduled to open the 2021 season in Winnipeg with a 2019 Grey Cup rematch between the Bombers and Ticats on June 10.

The ability to have fans in the stands is a requirement for the league to play in 2021 and although commissioner Randy Ambrosie has publicly maintained his commitment to a full 18-game CFL season, the evolving pandemic situation in Canada has been distinctly less positive.

A heavily criticized federal vaccine rollout, marred by a shortage of doses, placed the government timeline at 14.5 million shots delivered nationwide by the end of June. That has led to rampant speculation that the CFL season would be both shortened and postponed until their primary source of revenue returned.

Now the recent approval of both the Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccines are providing a glimmer of hope for the league, with British Columbia’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry remarking that a ‘post-pandemic world’ could arrive by the summer. 

A big reason for the jump in vaccination timelines is the recent decision by the government to delay the second dose of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine up to four months. While the second shot provides longevity of protection, studies from the UK and Israel show that the initial dose provide much of the required immunity.

“We’re very confident in the data that we’ve seen so far regarding the effectiveness in the real world of the first dose,” said task force lead Dr. Joss Reimer.

The government has not yet given any indication of how restrictions might be lifted once a critical mass of first doses is achieved, but the Blue Bombers — and the rest of the CFL — hope socially distanced outdoor gatherings will be on the table come June.

The Edmonton Oilers have already become the first NHL team to request government approval for fans at their indoor arena as early as April and the league is watching closely to see what precedent might be set.

While a delayed start to a shortened 2021 season remains possible, the prospect of fans in CFL stadiums this summer is becoming significantly more likely in a number of key jurisdictions.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.