There are fewer protests and news reports of harassment in COVID-19 hot zones in Manitoba’s Southern Health region, but the anti-vaccine movement is alive and well and, for one area doctor, extremely unsettling.
"They’ll accept a blood transfusion from us, they’ll accept our interpretation and explanation of a CT scan of their head, but not if we put a dry swab in the nose," Morden-based family physician Dr. Donna Neufeld said Wednesday.
"It’s just surreal."
The health region has, from the start of the vaccination campaign last winter, had the lowest uptake in the province. Health orders have, in some restaurants and retail outlets, been ignored by both customers and staff. And while winter has tossed a cold-weather blanket to muffle the most vocal public opposition, it hasn’t disappeared.
"I don’t think that it’s gotten any better," said Neufeld, who works at Menzies Medical Clinic and Boundary Trails Health Centre. "It might be a little bit quieter in that we don’t have the regular parade of trucks driving around honking with anti-vaccination slogans just because it’s wintertime, but it has certainly not gotten better, and every so often, you hear another thing that just surprises you."
Neufeld said she’s heard some residents have set fire to boxes of free KN95 masks they’ve received from the province at the Winkler Liquor Mart outlet.
And there was a case of someone who smuggled Ivermectin — a horse deworming medication touted by vaccine opponents as an effective treatment but firmly debunked by medical experts — into the hospital for a COVID-19 patient.
"How do you even treat somebody if you don’t know all the medicine that they’re getting? That I think is unique to southern Manitoba," she said.
Vaccinated patients have hid their status to avoid being targeted, and unvaccinated patients arrive believing doctors are complicit in spreading the virus.
“They’ll accept a blood transfusion from us, they’ll accept our interpretation and explanation of a CT scan of their head, but not if we put a dry swab in the nose.” – Dr. Donna Neufeld
The feeling around the hospital is, at times, disquieting. Neufeld said people she’d worked with for years are no longer on staff because they refused to be vaccinated or get tested on a regular basis, and many who rolled up their sleeves are off because they’re ill or isolating.
"What’s happening now is that doctors and their families are getting COVID too… as my colleagues get COVID and can’t come to work, then we’re all having to scramble, move around our shifts to cover their patients and so on," she said.
She believes the worst is yet to come in the region.
"If that continues, where physicians are getting sick — not really sick, because they are triple-vaccinated — but that will make it even harder. So, part of me is just watching this river, I feel like we’re drowning in some ways. On the other hand, we’re not even at the rapids yet."
Morden Mayor Brandon Burley said the highly infectious, quickly spreading Omicron variant has had an impact on some in the anti-vax, COVID-denying constituency.
Burley, who has been a target for protesters, said he knows of some cases in which anti-vaxxers got sick or died and family members finally decided to get the shot, but has also seen an attitude he calls "anything but the truth" prevail during Omicron’s rampage.
"They’re getting sick, a lot of them are dying, they have people they know who are dying, so there’s no denying that it’s here.… But now the new line in the sand is, how do we treat it?"
He’s skeptical of claims that the current crush might be the beginning of the end of the virus or that this is the most strained the local hospital will be.
"I’m not hopeful right now," he said. "Right now, I think our job is to prevent as much casualty as possible and to prevent as much infection as possible."
A few kilometres away in Winkler, Mayor Martin Harder said he’s known "a number" of anti-vaccine or virus-denying folks who have died, including one who was otherwise healthy.
"It hurts," he said. "That absolutely hurts, regardless of how you look at it, when you do something because of a selfish position."
“How do you even treat somebody if you don’t know all the medicine that they’re getting? That I think is unique to southern Manitoba.” – Dr. Donna Neufeld
Some previously hardline anti-vaxxers in Winkler have changed their minds after losing a loved one to COVID-19, he said, adding that those digging in their heels will likely continue to do so regardless of tragic outcomes.
He’s worried there will be more unnecessary deaths.
"There is not going to be a big jump in vaccination rates," he said. "I think there will be a gradual increase in vaccination rates for a number of different reasons individually, but there’s not going to be any big promotion, there’s not going to be any big shutdown, there’s not going to be anything that will (work)."
The reeve of the least-vaccinated health district in the province said he and his family are fully vaccinated and called it a "good idea," but stopped short of saying he would encourage residents to do the same.
"It doesn’t seem to matter how many people have got (vaccinated). We’ve got 80 per cent of the province that’ve got shots," RM of Stanley Reeve Morris Olafson said. "We still have cases. Nothing has changed."
Just less than one in four people in Stanley have received two doses, and just over one in five have only one. Comparatively, 40.8 per cent of Winkler’s eligible population have two doses, as do 63.5 per cent of Morden residents.
"I just say to everyone to try and do your part, whether it be through vaccinations, whether it be through masks, or any other means that protects our hospital settings so that we don’t get overloaded," Olafson said.
Stanley is a small area, and many people working there commute, some from as far away as Winnipeg, more than an hour away. He said he believes people getting sick in the area are catching it elsewhere.
"Let’s put it this way, I’m very optimistic that we’re going to come out of this, it’s just going to take time. You talk about numbers changing, well, Winnipeg had (low) numbers for a little while and guess where they are today? The numbers went up," he said.
"With every variant, that’s going to change. To single out one area or anything like that, I think we’re too transient to single out one area."
“I just say to everyone to try and do your part, whether it be through vaccinations, whether it be through masks, or any other means that protects our hospital settings so that we don’t get overloaded.” – RM of Stanley Reeve Morris Olafson
He denied taking a moderate stance to appeal to anti-vaxxers.
"The voting means absolutely nothing to me. The political side means absolutely nothing to me," he said. "This is not an election platform, as far as I’m concerned."
Olafson’s optimistic view isn’t shared by Neufeld, who said a "collective angst" among her colleagues is often only broken by the kindness of supportive patients in their community.
"We feel so hungry and so starved for anybody not taking a piece out of us and not being hostile towards us," she said. "Any little bit matters."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.