Public-health workforce stands tall

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ALL eyes are on vaccines as a COVID-19-weary province in a COVID-19-weary world aches for relief. Vaccines have a long track record of improving health and saving lives, and now, watching Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout progress, we pin our hopes on vaccines to protect us from serious COVID-19 illness and death. And eventually, we hope, to return more living to our lives.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/05/2021 (575 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

ALL eyes are on vaccines as a COVID-19-weary province in a COVID-19-weary world aches for relief. Vaccines have a long track record of improving health and saving lives, and now, watching Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout progress, we pin our hopes on vaccines to protect us from serious COVID-19 illness and death. And eventually, we hope, to return more living to our lives.

Hope is essential in a pandemic. It sustains us as we endure Groundhog Days at home, stressful long days on front lines, and unending hug-less-ness. A positive future orientation sustains us through these tough times. That is why when unduly negative media about vaccines damages hope, it may be harmful to our health.

The role of media in a pandemic is vital. Media convey important messages to the community. They uncover situations that need more attention, tell stories that need to be heard and hold politicians accountable for policy and funding decisions. Our Manitoba media outlets have worked long, hard hours fighting COVID-19.

But when media messaging becomes overly critical, the effects can be harmful. It can undermine public confidence, increase vaccine hesitancy, decrease vaccine uptake and further injure our already-bruised collective mental health.

Some recent stories that have put Manitoba’s vaccine efforts under the microscope have teetered in the balance between journalistic rigour and contrarian sensationalism. How are we doing in Manitoba, really? Is our syringe half-full or half-empty? Based on the tone of recent media, many Manitobans may conclude it’s half-empty. But Manitoba’s vaccine rollout is actually going really well.

Perfect? Well, no — perfect is an unrealistic expectation for any pandemic vaccine effort. Like flying a plane in uncertain weather, there will always be some dips and bumps. Course corrections are needed. But our plane is sound, gaining altitude and taking us to our destination.

It is impossible and inaccurate to compare one plane’s flight path to another — as has been done in comparing Manitoba’s vaccine rollout to those in other jurisdictions. Each province has unique demographics, health status and gaps, geography and infrastructure realities to contend with. Vaccine strategies need to be tailor-made to be successful. It is necessary to move forward in different ways at different speeds. Comparing statistics from one province to the next is truly apples and oranges.

Manitoba’s geography is unusual, with both concentrated urban populations and significantly dispersed rural populations, including many remote communities. Travel and infrastructure challenges result in more logistical hurdles.

Manitoba’s health gaps due to socioeconomic disadvantage and racism are among the highest in the country. That means that we have a higher proportion of people who are at more risk of getting COVID-19 while also facing multiple barriers to accessing vaccine. Getting vaccines to different priority groups takes more time and multiple nuanced approaches. But this slower-than-super-site speed benefits us all: not only are the most vulnerable protected, but when key areas of high transmission are interrupted, we are all protected.

Different priority groups also benefit from specific partners and providers. Physicians’ offices and pharmacies reach people who super sites might not. Though slower, they are highly effective access points for certain groups. And they’re eager to ramp up.

We have a First Nations vaccine effort to be very proud of. The data illustrate severe and significant effects of COVID-19 – a direct result of oppression, systemic racism and colonization. The Indigenous-led rollout is effectively demonstrating the effectiveness of Indigenous self-determination in health-services delivery.

In Manitoba, the public-health system was stretched thin prior to COVID-19. Recommendations in the Peachey report to strengthen public health were ignored. Public-health vaccination programs have been historically underfunded. Closing poverty-induced health gaps by investing in determinants of health has not been an ideological priority for this government.

In Manitoba, wide gaps in health and chronic underfunding of public-health infrastructure means we were destined to come at COVID-19 from behind.

Despite that, Manitoba’s public-health workforce has shone brightly. We have the dedication, innovation, self-sacrifice, tireless efforts and calm communication of Manitoba’s public-health practitioners to thank for where we are today. An army of skilled, respectful and compassionate public health nurses, doctors, epidemiologists and others are battling COVID-19 one shot at a time.

Many are putting in long overtime hours, and have gone without days off as they continue to sprint a year-long marathon at tremendous personal cost.

Our vaccine efforts have been working. Ramping up. Ever pivoting. Racing for us against the third wave. So instead of taking shots at our vaccine rollout, maybe it’s time for some Jets-whiteout-level cheering, like only Manitobans can.

Sande Harlos is a board member of the Manitoba Public Health Association, a volunteer-run nonprofit non-governmental organization that advocates for social justice, reconciliation and equity for the health of Manitobans.

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