Avoid shaming, build trust to combat vaccine hesitancy, southern Manitoban pastor says

Manitoba's overall vaccination rate stands at 35 per cent, but in southern Manitoba's Stanley health district, it's 6.1. Kyle Penner, a Steinbach pastor, says there are various ways to convince people in communities with low uptake to get the shot.

Steinbach clergyman pens post telling public health officials to go local in order to encourage vaccinations

Kyle Penner, who is a pastor in Steinbach, says he thinks the province needs to get local leaders and trusted community members involved in convincing people in southern Manitoba to get vaccinated. (Submitted by Kyle Penner)

A Steinbach pastor has some suggestions for how to encourage more people in southern Manitoba to get vaccinated — and they don't involve blaming or shaming anyone. 

Earlier this week, the province released data that showed COVID-19 vaccine uptake in parts of the region is alarmingly low — especially in the areas around Morden and Winkler, and the Hanover area, east of Steinbach. 

In the Stanley health district, which surrounds Winkler and nearby Morden, only 6.1 per cent of residents had received at least one dose, the data released Wednesday showed. At that point, Manitoba's overall vaccination rate was around 35 per cent.

That prompted Kyle Penner, the associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach, to write a Facebook post outlining various ways people in southern Manitoba communities with low uptake might be convinced to get the shot.

The way to do that is to create trust with community members, his post says.

"Get local leaders of things we love to be the face of the campaign. These folks are our neighbours, our kids play soccer together, and we have mutual friends. We trust each other," he wrote. 

Too often, people are quick to chastise those who are hesitant to get vaccinated, he told Faith Fundal, host of CBC Radio's Up To Speed. But that won't change anyone's mind.

"Naming and shaming and blaming doesn't work for anything," he said. 

"Like my dentist every year telling me to floss my teeth … it does not really change my behaviour that much."

LISTEN | Steinbach pastor Kyle Penner shares ideas for convincing people to get vaccinated:

He added that many people living in rural Manitoba don't respond very well to people from Winnipeg telling them what they should do. 

"There is a little bit of mistrust there. We value our independence, we value our communities and … some of us don't like it when Winnipeg folks think they know what's best for us."

While there are some people who are staunchly anti-vaccination, he thinks most people are simply hesitant to roll up their sleeves, and could be convinced with more information from someone they trust. 

"But if we just blow them all off, they're not going to change their behaviour," he said. 

Find trusted community figures

Heidi Tworek, a health communications researcher at the University of British Columbia, said it's important to go local when fighting vaccine hesitancy. People are more likely to trust their community members than an authority figure who they don't know, she says.

"You need to find those trusted figures in communities, and I think and I hope that Canada and provinces can start doing that a lot earlier," she said in an interview with CBC News earlier this week. 

On Wednesday, Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for Manitoba's vaccine implementation task force, said the province is working on doing just that in order to encourage people in southern Manitoba to get vaccinated.

"We know that people are influenced by the people around them, and if someone that you trust and you look up to gives you advice in one way or the other … you're often going to take that to heart," she said. 

"We want to get those trusted leaders on board and help so that they can inform the process on how best to connect with the communities, but also [so] that they can connect with the communities armed with all of the best information available."

Manitoba once again expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines on Friday.

Among the changes, all pregnant adults can now register for a shot at a vaccination supersite or pop-up clinic. As well, anyone 30 or older with certain health conditions can now book an appointment to get the AstraZeneca vaccine at a pharmacy or medical clinic.

The general age-based eligibility for vaccination remains at 50 and older, or 30 up for First Nations people.

With files from Cory Funk