Gulf in COVID-19 rates between BIPOC, white people grows in Manitoba

The gap in Manitoba between COVID-19 infection rates among people of colour and white people continues to widen due to societal inequities and barriers to getting immunized faced by some communities, experts say.

Data suggest vaccines driving down infection rates in white people but barriers remain for people of colour

Criminalization and stigma can lead people to avoid getting tested for COVID-19, Dr. Marcia Anderson says. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The gap in Manitoba between COVID-19 infection rates among people of colour and white people continues to widen due to societal inequities and barriers to getting immunized faced by some communities, experts say.

That may warrant a shift in provincial public messaging and vaccination campaigns, said Dr. Marcia Anderson, public health lead for the First Nations pandemic response co-ordination team.

In March, Manitoba health officials identified a trend suggesting Black, Indigenous and other people of colour were experiencing disproportionately higher COVID-19 infection rates than white people. 

That was at a time when Manitoba's vaccine rollout hadn't yet expanded to the general population in a substantial way; health-care workers and people in long-term care facilities were prioritized earlier this year.

Since then, demographic data on COVID-19 infection rates suggests the gulf has widened, and a main reason is due to higher vaccination rates in white populations, Anderson said.

As of Dec. 31, when very few vaccinations had been done in Manitoba, white people made up 64 per cent of the general population but only 48 per cent of coronavirus infections.

This month, about 39 per cent of infected people are white, while BIPOC communities combined had 61 per cent of infections but only 37 per cent of Manitoba's population, Anderson said during a Wednesday briefing.

In November, amid the province's second wave of COVID-19 cases, white and BIPOC communities shared very similar infection rates. Just under 3,900 cases in November were people who identified as white during contact tracing investigations, and about 3,800 were BIPOC.

Fast forward to April and May — a few months into the vaccine rollout — and there were twice as many COVID-19 infections in Manitoba's people of colour as in white people.

Similar trends have been identified in numerous other jurisdictions.

The new data also suggests Chinese Manitobans are the only racial or ethnic group with a lower infection rate than white people, yet they continue to be the subject of anti-Asian racism amid the pandemic, Anderson said.

BIPOC Manitobans may be overrepresented in part due to higher rates of housing and income insecurity. People of colour are also more likely to work in higher-risk settings as essential workers or in manufacturing, food processing and service-based industries, where workplace exposure is greater.

Dr. Marcia Anderson gives Ben McKenzie, 15, the first COVID-19 vaccine shot provided to a Manitoban younger than 18 at Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre on McGregor Street in Winnipeg. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The latest data also suggests a greater proportion of white Manitobans are getting vaccinated, and that could have something to do with accessibility to vaccines. 

Anderson said race and ethnicity information wasn't collected on Manitoba vaccination consent forms until May 10.

Speed-based approach

Manitoba's immunization campaign shifted in recent months to prioritize speed. That meant funnelling more doses to supersites, locations that Anderson said may not be the most accessible to some communities.

That speed-based approach may need to be refocused more on accessibility for BIPOC Manitobans, she said.

Communities that face system barriers to health-care may experience similar barriers to getting vaccinated. Some may also distrust government due to historical mistreatment, worry about the pace at which vaccines were developed or be swayed by misinformation.

Anderson pointed to Manitoba's efforts to boost uptake rates among First Nations communities as a way forward.

Targeted campaigns on 63 First Nations engaged local leaders and health-care workers in getting the word out. Those efforts, involving trusted community messengers, helped those First Nations achieve a vaccination rate of 67 per cent so far, Anderson said.

Urban Indigenous vaccination clinics and drop-ins have also provided culturally relevant spaces where First Nations, Métis and Inuit people can get vaccinated, she said.

Manitoba will need to work on empowering community leaders and look at removing transportation barriers, Anderson said.

The province could also consider enhanced supports, such as offering medications for common mild side-effects in immunization locations, and other wraparound supports such as food hampers and medicine bundles, she said.

Stigma, fear unhelpful: Anderson

The pandemic's third wave continues to ravage Manitoba hospitals, forcing the health-care system into its darkest days since the pandemic began.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister took aim at rule-breakers on Tuesday, suggesting non-compliance with health orders, vaccine hesitancy and people delaying getting tested when symptomatic were all factors in the current situation plaguing hospitals.

Anderson was asked about this approach within the context of the latest racial and ethnic demographic infection data.

She said the provincial focus should not be on non-compliance but instead on revising messaging.

"When people are afraid that they might suffer greater stigma or enforcement, a fear of criminal approach, then they just will not get tested and that actually leads to more spread," she said.

"Previous negative experiences with health care due to systemic racism and mistrust can be significant barriers."

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of Manitoba's vaccine task force, encourages open dialogue.

"Make sure that you're doing it in a way that engages people in a conversation rather than pushing them to feel that they are somehow being blamed for the circumstances that they're in," she said.

Manitobans can book appointments on the province's website or by calling 1-844-626-8222.

WATCH | Reimer's message to Manitobans on the fence about COVID-19 vaccines:

Dr. Joss Reimer shares her message to Manitobans who are hesitant about COVID-19 vaccines

4 months ago
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of Manitoba's vaccine task force, urged Manitobans with questions about COVID-19 vaccines to reach out to her team or trusted medical professionals during a news conference on Wednesday. 1:20