Vaccine hesitancy and distrust are alive and well in some communities in Manitoba's southeast corner, data released Wednesday shows.
Just 6.1 per cent of adults in the Rural Municipality of Stanley have received a COVID-19 vaccine. Winkler — which is surrounded by the RM of Stanley — and the RM of Hanover are at 13.6 per cent and 14.9 per cent, respectively.
One resident of Schanzenfeld — a small, mostly Mennonite community in Stanley — said she would not be getting a vaccine under any circumstances.
The woman, who asked not to be named, called the vaccine an "experiment on people" and said the virus had been orchestrated by international forces.
"It’s a made-up thing," she said. "The flu has been around for many, many years, and the coronavirus is just a different kind of flu; it just has a different name now."
Many of her research sources have been banned from social media, but she said that, too, was a result of meddling from outside forces.
Overall, Manitobans' response to the vaccine rollout has been positive, Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the task force overseeing its implementation, said Wednesday.
The Southern Health region and task-force members familiar with the area will be reaching out to local leaders in an effort to get vaccine facts to residents, Reimer said.
"We do know that a lot of times in these communities, there can be a mistrust of government, there can be a mistrust of vaccines generally," she said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew encouraged the province to enlist trusted figures in various communities to help combat vaccine hesitancy. Residents are more likely to listen to and trust someone they know, as opposed to politicians and public-health officials, he said.
"If we have an issue with vaccine hesitancy in the Southern Health region, the government really has to go into this part of the province and find out who is trusted. Is it community leaders? Is it religious leaders? Is it people who are influencers on social media? Whoever it is, we have to get those people to help carry the message forward," Kinew said.
While low vaccination rates in some areas of Winnipeg seem to be attributable to accessibility issues, the Morden vaccine supersite is minutes away from many of the communities with low uptake, Reimer said.
Residents of those areas have historically been wary of vaccinations for other illnesses, and health officials aren't surprised by the numbers.
"This is something public health has been working on (for) a long time, to improve confidence in vaccines in those areas. 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," Reimer said.
Winkler Mayor Martin Harder said the data was disappointing, but he wasn't really surprised, either.
"There are a huge number of conspiracy theorists, and there’s a number of things they seem to have to overcome before they get to a point where they’re going to be vaccinated," he said.
Both Hanover Reeve Stan Toews and Stanley Reeve Morris Olafson declined to comment.
The southern part of the province is home to groups denying COVID-19’s existence or severity and consider the province’s response to be misguided.
Valid criticism of the province’s response, combined with the spread of internet fear-mongering and misinformation has produced a lot of opposition, Harder said.
"It’s hard for them to separate it… so you hunker down, you say, ‘I don’t care, the world has gone by so far, this will go by, and I’m not going to do it.’ I’m thinking there’s some of that," he said.
Harder, who has been vaccinated, speaks to area residents on a monthly radio show, the most recent of which was Wednesday morning. Along with encouraging people to get vaccinated, he urged them to speak with their health-care providers for the facts about the virus and vaccine.
He plans to speak with city staff in an attempt to further promote vaccination, he said.
But for some, there is nothing that will change their mind.
"You can promote, you can say all the things you want and what the benefits are, but if (people) listen long enough to the negativity that’s out there, pretty soon you’re going to believe some, and I’m pretty sure that’s what happened," Harder said.
— With files from Larry Kusch
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.