Southern Manitoba doctors encounter threatening, unsettling behaviour as mandatory vaccine deadlines loom

A southern Manitoba doctor filed a police report a couple weeks ago after finding a disconcerting hand-written letter dropped off at his home in the Winkler area.

Its author accused him of pushing the COVID-19 vaccine on patients.

Along with the letter was a kind of tabloid newspaper that contained misinformation suggesting the vaccination campaign was a plot by elites to depopulate the Earth, claiming the immunized were likely to die within a few years.

“It was just filled with ludicrous conspiracy theories,” said the doctor, whom CBC News isn’t naming because he fears he could become more of a target.

“They’ve chosen to drop this off, not at the hospital or the clinic, not mail it, but hand deliver it to my home, which they sought out somehow.… I think there was clearly a threat implied.”

What the Winkler-based family physician and emergency room doctor experienced is part of an emerging pattern of privacy violations and forms of threatening behaviour amid looming mandatory vaccine deadlines this fall.

Some also have to contend with phony exemptions.

This week, a patient went to the doctor’s clinic and got past reception’s COVID-19 screening without a mask on after presenting a button that said he had a medical exemption.

When pressed, eventually the patient copped to buying the button online.

He didn’t like wearing masks and said “I don’t want to get the needle because I’m going to die from it,” the doctor said.

“I had a challenging encounter,” he said.

“We sort of are left at this impasse, where I can’t provide proper care for him if he can’t come into the clinic — like, you can’t just have no rules and let people do whatever they want, endanger everyone else in the clinic.”

‘Invasion of privacy’

Another Winkler physician, Dr. Don Klassen, said he and his colleagues have regularly encountered patients at Boundary Trails Health Centre refusing to be tested for COVID-19 or to disclose their vaccination status. 

Dr. Don Klassen has been practising in Winkler for decades. Over the past several months, he says doctors are facing suspicion, criticism and tension from patients unlike anything he experienced before the pandemic. (Tyson Koschik/CBC )

Klassen also had a similar experience to the other Winkler doctor recently.

About 2½ weeks ago, someone put conspiracy theory literature beneath his vehicle windshield wiper, with a handwritten note addressed to him, urging him to read the material.

“It is an invasion of privacy,” he said.

Klassen said in recent weeks a doctor colleague had someone spreading rumours on social media about them downplaying the true severity of COVID-19.

None of these things would have happened pre-pandemic, he said.

It’s putting some on edge.

“It’s not like you go to work and, oh boy, you’re just looking behind every door to see what’s coming, but there is a little bit of that, right? Things you just never thought of before in terms of practising medicine.”

Doctors Manitoba gets more reports

The experiences of these two doctors are not isolated. 

“It really is heartbreaking,” said Dr. Kristjan Thompson, president of Doctors Manitoba.

“Physicians and health-care workers are here to help, and so acts of intimidation, aggression, threatening remarks or violence is absolutely inexcusable.”

The organization has heard from a lot of members recently who have been having similar experiences, Thompson said.

“This behaviour is inexcusable,” he said.

The organization put together a guideline document sent to physicians Thursday to help them navigate threatening or aggressive situations. Thompson also wants more physicians to report incidents to Doctors Manitoba.

He’s had his own encounters.

Thompson works in a Winnipeg emergency room, and a few months ago, the son of one of his older patients, who was dying of COVID-19, was invited in to be with her in those final moments.

The man became aggressive. He refused to wear a mask and intentionally coughed in Thompson’s face and pushed him aside.

Security escorted the man outside, where Thompson said they managed to hash things out. The man apologized and was invited back in with a mask on, but the exchange still left a mark.

“It’s important for people who are suffering, who are frustrated, to really be mindful how they channel their anger,” he said.

That message hasn’t entirely resonated in parts of the south.

“It’s become a very, very hostile community to work in,” said the physician based in Winkler.

He also works at Boundary Trails, where staff face more outright hostility than in the clinic setting, he said.

Boundary Trails Health Centre is between Winkler and Morden, about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Boundary Trails serves people from a variety of communities, including Winkler and the rural municipality of Stanley, where vaccination rates are the lowest in the province at 41.8 and 24.7 per cent, respectively, as of Friday. 

Those rates reflect pervasive attitudes doctors encounter on the job there, the doctor said.

“To try to help someone that thinks you’re the enemy and is accusing you of withholding the proper care, not knowing what you’re talking about … it’s been frustrating,” he said.

“What I wish people would understand is that we’re doing our job just like we always have, and our job has always been to try to keep people out of hospital, to try to prevent illness and harm, rather than trying to just fix it once it’s happened.”