Mistrust, religion, fear of side-effects feed COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Winkler and Morden, residents say
Nearly 36% of Manitoba adults have at least 1 dose of vaccine, but RM of Stanley has 6.1% uptake
Lorne Burt is unsure whether he will get vaccinated for COVID-19.
The Winkler, Man., resident tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year, but experienced mild symptoms. He's his own boss and works from home, and isn't often out in public generally — though he follows public health protocols when he is.
Burt just doesn't trust the vaccine yet.
"Do I get a flu shot? Yes. Do I get my kids vaccinated or the booster shots? Yes I do. Those have been around for multiple years. The actual hard proof is there that they're safe," Burt said, adding he even got the H1N1 vaccine.
"If I felt that that it was an absolute necessity for me to get [the COVID-19 vaccine], I would. But I just don't think the data is there yet."
Burt is one of many southern Manitoba residents who, for various reasons, hesitate to roll up their sleeves for the COVID-19 immunization.
Nearly 36 per cent of adults in Manitoba have received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Thursday, provincial data shows.
But there are pockets where there are low turnouts and it's becoming a significant concern for Manitoba public health officials.
During a provincial technical briefing Wednesday, officials flagged the 10 areas with the lowest vaccine uptake. The top three regions were in southern Manitoba.
Only 6.1 per cent of people in the Stanley health district, which surrounds Winkler and nearby Morden, Man., have received at least one dose. In the Winkler health district specifically, the uptake is 13.6 per cent.
The rural municipality of Hanover, which covers an area north, west and south of Steinbach, has seen 14.9 per cent of its residents get at least one dose.
"It's sad," said Dayna Jonasson, a Morden resident who works at a personal care home in Winkler. She was one of the first health-care workers to be vaccinated, receiving her second dose on Jan. 28.
"I work with the most vulnerable sector of the community … so I'm a firm believer in not only getting our residents vaccinated, but also getting our staff vaccinated."
The reasons for vaccine hesitancy in the area are complex, though not surprising given past hesitancy toward flu shots and child immunizations, Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of Manitoba's vaccine task force, said during a news conference Wednesday.
"They're worried about long-term effects. They are worried it may have been created too fast. Then there's the extreme conspiracy theories," said Elizabeth Thompson, a general surgeon in Winkler who fields questions about the vaccine once or twice a day.
"There is enough good evidence to say that the concerns that they have are certainly real, but that they are much lower than the risk of getting COVID itself."
Winkler, in particular, has a younger population, which may be playing a part in the low uptake too, she said.
Some people CBC News spoke with said they simply don't believe in the vaccine. Pete Peters, a 77-year-old living in Winkler, was offered the vaccine but chose not to take it.
"I have the papers at home. If I want to have it, [they'll] come over," he said.
Others, like C.J. Friesen, are against vaccinations. She hasn't been vaccinated for anything before, but the speed in which COVID-19 vaccines were created and approved also make her apprehensive, she said.
Friesen has also lost trust in the institutions reporting COVID-19 data and doesn't understand how the pandemic's waves come and go.
"I trust in God. I trust he'll get us through this," she said.
There is no clear evidence that religion specifically is causing vaccine hesitancy, said Reimer — but some Winkler and Morden residents believe it's true.
"With the government shutting down churches, a lot of people are viewing that negatively," said Burt, who believes in the Christian God.
"It's more of a biblical thing around here.… I don't think it has anything to do with science. It's just strictly that they feel tribulation is coming."
Some people are likening public health restrictions to the Romans crucifying Jesus, he said.
"It's just crazy," Burt added.
Vaccination has made things more stressful for Winkler Mayor Martin Harder, as it is a divisive issue in the region.
"I wish churches wouldn't make this a religious issue," he said.
"We want to come out of this being a community that is together, rather than a divided community … and obviously we want to come out of this healthy."
Harder, who had relatives in Steinbach die from COVID-19, has no problem with developing a targeted campaign for churches, he said, noting the community and Manitoba officials worked on one for schools earlier in the year.
He does, however, want the stigma surrounding southern Manitoba when it comes to COVID-19 and people defying protocols to end.
Manitoba officials will be reaching out to community leaders, including spiritual leaders, to get them to help build public trust in the vaccine and encourage residents to book an appointment for their dose when eligible, said Reimer Wednesday.
"If we could get some allies in the leadership group around town … that would go a long way to assuring people that it is safe and that it isn't just something that the government or the doctors are trying to talk you into," said Thompson, the surgeon.
The campaign can't revolve around coaxing people to take the vaccine, as individuals' rights to put what they want in their bodies must be respected, she added.
WATCH | Low uptake reveals vaccine hesitancy in southern Manitoba communities:
- A previous version of this story said only 6.1 per cent of the rural municipality of Stanley, of which Winkler and Morden are a part, have received at least one vaccine dose. In fact, the health district of Stanley, which surrounds Morden and Winkler, has an uptake rate of 6.1 per cent. The Winkler health district has a vaccination rate of 13.6 per cent.Apr 30, 2021 8:15 AM CT
With files from Erin Brohman and Cory Funk