Low vaccination rates in some Manitoba communities worry health officials

Health officials say they’re seeing some concerning trends in vaccine uptake across parts of southern Manitoba, particularly in communities commonly grouped in as the province’s Bible Belt, as well as parts of inner-city Winnipeg.

According to a provincial technical briefing document released Wednesday, the three health districts with the lowest percentages of people who have received at least one dose are all in the Southern Health region.

Those health districts are:

  • Stanley, which surrounds Morden and Winkler (6.1  per cent).
  • Winkler (13.6 per cent).
  • Hanover, which is south and east of Steinbach (14.9 per cent).

The Winnipeg district of Point Douglas south — which incorporates areas west of the Red River, including all of the Point Douglas neighbourhood, as well as parts of the North End — had the lowest uptake among city districts, at 17.3 per cent.

Overall, nearly 35 per cent of adult Manitobans have received at least one dose.

The reasons for the low uptake rates are complex and vary across the province, said Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead on Manitoba’s vaccine implementation task force.

In Winnipeg, barriers to accessing health care generally come into play. People might lack information or face challenges booking appointments, or may feel uncomfortable attending a large facility such as a supersite. 

Those concerns don’t appear to be a factor in the Southern Health districts, Reimer said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference.

“We don’t see a barrier to access being a major issue for these communities because they do have the [vaccination] supersite in Morden,” she said.

Public health officials weren’t necessarily surprised by the areas that are seeing lower vaccination numbers, given past hesitancy around annual flu vaccinations and childhood immunizations, Reimer said.

However, “right now, it’s quite a bit more urgent than it has been in the past, because we want to protect the members of our community that live in Stanley, in Winkler, in Hanover,” she said.

“We don’t want to see ongoing illness and hospitalization and death in those communities.”

Community outreach

Although there is no “clear scientific data that it’s religion specifically leading to any sort of hesitancy,” Reimer said the province is reaching out to community leaders, including spiritual leaders, to help encourage people to get vaccinated.

“It’s key for us to identify those community leaders, which are often religious leaders, so that we can help build confidence in the vaccine through a trusted voice, that they could serve as a bit of a champion for the vaccine,” she said.

Morden Mayor Brandon Burley says part of the reason for the low numbers in his region could be the fact that it has a younger population than the province overall, and many of those younger people aren’t yet eligible for vaccination.

But he acknowledged that there is a degree of vaccine skepticism among some members of the community. 

“I know we probably would poll fairly high when it came to anti-vaccine sentiments in general,” he said. 

“But I think folks need to recognize that if we want the hard work we’ve been doing so far with regard to COVID-19 to pay off, that we need to get vaccinated.”

Morris Olafson, the reeve of rural municipality of Stanley, said while vaccination is a personal decision, the 6.1 per cent rate for his area of the province seemed low to him.

Olafson expects more people in the Stanley area to get the shot now that supplies are increasing.

Burley said he and other community leaders will continue to try to inform people about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

“We want to create a bridge for people to come over and recognize that we can pull the same weight, and this chasm that has divided our communities and has torn us apart can in fact be crossed,” he said.

“It’s going to take a lot of ground work, but I think it can be done.”