Manitoba

Officials team up with southern Manitoba Mennonite leaders to combat vaccine hesitancy

Provincial officials and community leaders are teaming up to address vaccine hesitancy in some pockets of southern Manitoba.

Hesitancy in some communities linked to misinformation, distrust of government: Dr. Joss Reimer

Efforts are underway to engage local community and religious leaders in southern Manitoba communities to boost vaccination rates. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Provincial officials and community leaders are teaming up to address vaccine hesitancy in some pockets of southern Manitoba.

Officials announced on Wednesday that efforts have been underway in the past two weeks to connect with trusted voices — Mennonite leaders in particular — in communities with lower vaccine uptake.

"We want to try our very best to reach those communities," Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead of Manitoba's vaccine task force, said Wednesday.

Officials want "to address any questions that we can answer with any of the scientific studies, to give them that confidence to fight against any misinformation," Reimer said at a news conference.

So far, over half of Manitobans 18 and older have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. With second dose bookings slated to open Friday, officials are ramping up encouragement efforts in communities with lower uptake. 

The province launched a survey Wednesday that Reimer hopes will garner insight into vaccine hesitancy and help inform outreach programs moving forward.

That could involve targeted communication campaigns, the delivery of community-specific materials and collaborations with community leaders.

It could also involve tweaking how vaccines are delivered to these communities. At a Wednesday morning technical briefing, a health official pointed to the province's urban Indigenous immunization clinics as an example of removing barriers to ensure easier access.

The province will also soon begin posting vaccine uptake rates broken down by region, sex, and first and second dose.

Misinformation, distrust of government

There are a variety of explanations for why people in some religious and racial communities might remain hesitant, including misinformation, said Reimer. 

Historical distrust of government is another.

About a century ago, Russian Mennonites fled that country to escape government persecution during the Russian Revolution.

"Some of those sentiments stick around for generations," Reimer said.

The roots of distrust go back even further, says the associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach — to the 16th-century Reformation movement, when Mennonite martyrs died at the hands of the state.

Kyle Penner said while it's important to understand Mennonites aren't a monolith, and views in the community are as diverse as in any other, distrust of government isn't uncommon.

"We have a very long history of governments persecuting us," he said. "Some of us don't have that distrust anymore, but as a whole … our distrust is not an inaccurate statement."

Kyle Penner, who is a pastor in Steinbach, is working with provincial officials to help encourage vaccinations in his community. (Submitted by Kyle Penner)

Late last month, when over a third of Manitobans had received at least one vaccine dose, the rural municipality of Hanover, which encompasses areas south, west and north of Steinbach, had rates under 15 per cent.

Winker health district had rates just under 14 per cent. The Stanley health district, which surrounds Winkler and Morden, had uptake levels closer to six per cent at that point.

Religious leaders have duty: pastor

Penner said he's happy to help deliver the immunization message in Steinbach, and hopes others will do the same.

"At the very least, religious leaders, I think, have a duty to say, 'Go talk to the medical professionals about this. We're not the experts.'"

That sense of obligation should also extend to local politicians and even informal leaders of community groups, he said. There needs to be an effort to amplify voices of local medical professionals as well.

"I care about Steinbach and I care about southern Manitoba," said Penner. "I want us all to be safe and to get back to the things that we love and that we miss.… I am glad to do my part and I think we all have a place to address this."

An immunization supersite just opened up in Steinbach, about 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, on Tuesday. Penner had his appointment booked for Wednesday and says appointments there are already full through June 13.

That suggests the lower vaccination rates last month may not have only been about hesitancy.

"What this shows is that maybe a lot of us down here aren't willing to drive an hour, or an hour and half, to go [to] downtown Winnipeg or to go to Morden to get our shots," said Penner. "A lot of us do want our shots, we just want them closer to us."

Past government online surveys suggest vaccine intention appears to be rising across the board, with an estimated 76 per cent of Manitobans surveyed as of mid-April saying they intend to get vaccinated.

Officials are hoping 70 per cent of the population will get fully vaccinated to ensure sufficient herd immunity has been achieved to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Everyone 12 and up is now eligible to be vaccinated in Manitoba. Appointments can be booked through the province's website or by calling 1-844-626-8222.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He recently finished up a stint as a producer for CBC's Quirks & Quarks. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Bartley Kives

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