Offer ‘welcome to the party’ — not blame for being tardy — when vaccine hesitant come around: pastor

A Steinbach pastor is encouraging Manitobans to congratulate those in their lives for getting vaccinated, even if they were once on the fence or didn’t take the first opportunity to do so.

“When people get vaccinated later than we’d like, our first posture [shouldn’t be] ‘You’re too late, buddy, where were you?'” said Kyle Penner, associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach.

“Our first posture is, ‘Welcome to the party, we’re glad you’re here.'”

Penner is one of several southern Manitoba religious leaders working with provincial vaccine task force officials to spur uptake in areas with lower rates, including in Mennonite communities.

He believes most in his congregation are already partially vaccinated, but just shy of 43 per cent of eligible residents in the Steinbach health district had received one dose as of Friday — well under the provincial average of 64 per cent for those 12 and up, according to provincial data.

Steinbach’s rate is about four percentage points higher than Altona health district and considerably higher than Winkler (27 per cent), about 100 kilometres to the west, and Stanley (14 per cent), the district that surrounds Winkler and Morden.

Steinbach’s neighbouring health districts of Hanover and Ste. Anne/LaBroquerie were at 31 per cent and 46 per cent respectively.

Rates in Steinbach climbed about five per cent in the past seven days, according to the provincial data.

That uptick is likely linked to an immunization supersite that opened in the city three weeks ago. Prior to that, the closest option for those in Steinbach was in Winnipeg, 50 kilometres away. 

Now that it’s opened, Steinbach appointments are booked solid for weeks, a sign to Penner that earlier low vaccination rates may have been due not just to hesitancy or anti-vaccination attitudes, but also to access.

Location, location, location

“It’s incredibly busy,” Steinbach Mayor Earl Funk told Radio Noon host Marjorie Dowhos on Friday.

The supersite is now vaccinating about 420 people a day on average, or about 2,900 a week, Funk said.

He’s been eligible for weeks but elected to wait for the Steinbach site opening, because it was important for him to get his shot locally. He got his first dose Thursday.

“I’m a local guy. We do everything local,” Funk said.

“It’s very important to me, but also to show the residents of Steinbach that I am serious and that I stand behind what I say, and that’s why I wanted to do it in our hometown — to have solidarity.”

Dr. Joss Reimer, the Manitoba vaccine task force’s medical lead, said this week that the vast majority of people in low-uptake communities who remain reluctant aren’t necessarily anti-vaccine. Those with reservations may, however, lack confidence in COVID-19 vaccines in particular, or have questions about them, she said.

WATCH | Low confidence in COVID-19 shots (June 2):

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of the vaccine task force, says for the most part hesitancy in pockets of southern Manitoba has less to do with anti-vaccine attitudes, and more to do with lingering questions and a lack of confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine in particular. 1:18

An expert in how faith and religion can influence vaccine hesitancy says it’s important to acknowledge people hold off on immunization for a variety of reasons. 

Trying to explain hesitancy by focusing on questions about vaccine science can also distract from the “ambient distrust and anxiety that people see,” said Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria.

He notes a “declining sense of authority about medicine and government.”

Bramadat said it’s common in some Christian communities to believe God not only has a general plan for how the universe should unfold, but a specific plan for their individual lives.

Paul Bramadat is director of the the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria. (Submitted by Paul Bramadat)

There’s a layer of distrust of the secular world on top of that, he said, stemming from persecution at the hands of the state that in some cases dates back centuries. That’s why it’s important to put in the time building relationships, Bramadat says.

“The problem is in a pandemic environment, you don’t really have time to be patient and open because people are actually dying.… So it’s this complicated balance.”

Opening up

He recommends people open up about their rationale for why they got vaccinated.

“There’s a strong emphasis in our culture of making a private decision: ‘it’s my decision, I made it, I don’t need to preach about it,’ and in fact it might be considered rude to tell my neighbour and my sister and my cousin that I’ve done that,” he said. 

“We need to get over that concern of everyone’s privacy and begin to share.”

Winkler Mayor Martin Harder told CBC News last weekend that part of the explanation for slow uptake there was linked to a sense of pride in self-sufficiency.

Penner echoed that sentiment about people in Steinbach.

“When community leaders step up and say, ‘We don’t need you, province, we’re going to do this ourselves,’ great — I think the province needs to … support those voices,” he said. 

“We want to figure things out ourselves, and that’s actually a good thing.”

WATCH | Mennonite woman urges others to get vaccinated after brush with COVID-19:

Katharina Giesbrecht shares how a terrifying brush with COVID-19 changed her mind about getting vaccinated. Now, the southern Manitoba Mennonite woman is doing her part to encourage others on the fence in her faith community to do the same. 1:37