All but one of the officials in charge of approving back-to-school policies across Winnipeg amid the pandemic has confirmed they are fully immunized against COVID-19.
In response to a Free Press survey, 56 of 57 trustees who oversee schools in the Manitoba capital — in boards including Winnipeg, River East Transcona, Louis Riel, Pembina Trails, Seven Oaks, St. James-Assiniboia, Seine River and the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine — indicated they had received two doses of vaccine.
Teresa Jaworski, who represents Ward 3 in Seven Oaks, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the subject before deadline.
In contrast, colleagues across the city were eager to voluntarily announce their immunization status.
"I’m nothing but proud and excited to disclose my vaccination status," wrote Chris Broughton, a trustee, parent and front-line health-care provider in Manitoba’s largest division, in an email. "I’ve bore witness to the tragedy of this pandemic and cannot fathom (not) doing everything I can to protect myself, my family, my patients, and my community from this virus."
From proud trustee survey responses to vaccine selfies, sharing one’s immunization status has become increasingly popular throughout the pandemic.
"It speaks to the highly promotional nature of public health communication right now. Being vaccinated is increasingly becoming a badge to help define one’s identity," said Josh Greenberg, director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication in Ottawa.
Stylized selfies of post-vaccine stickers and Band-Aids are not simply about sharing personal health information but rather establishing that one is pro-vaccine and in favour of supporting their community, said Greenberg, who researches public health communication.
Trustee Jennifer Chen, who represents residents in Ward 6 in Winnipeg, has been promoting vaccine uptake via social media for months.
Chen has been organizing vaccine pop-up clinics in her role as a volunteer with the Women of Colour Community Leadership Initiative. To date, a total of five clinics she has helped set up have drawn approximately 500 people, including youth, teachers and other community members, to get jabs.
"The more people get vaccinated, the better," she said, during a phone call this week.
The 98 per cent trustee response rate and their disclosures alike are "quite impressive," said Cheryl Camillo, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Regina, whose research interests include population health and the behavioural element of vaccine uptake.
"They believe it’s important to show leadership in service to your community and they’ve concluded that by getting vaccinated, you’re serving the public by doing your part to protect public health. It’s their way of saying that they’ve fulfilled their role and responsibility, and they’re also trying to encourage others," said Camillo, who is also a social policy researcher with the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network.
"I find that really encouraging, at a time when people can be really cynical about leadership — in particular, about political leadership — that they were so responsive and that they’re proud to share their status."
Camillo added she thinks their transparency can only help boost uptake rates at a time when anxious parents are looking to protect their children, many of whom cannot be immunized because of their age, before classes resume.
An imminent fourth wave, the highly-infectious delta variant and the fact students born in 2008 or later cannot be immunized have parents and school staff alike on high alert as the first day of school nears.
"I am fully vaccinated and if it were up to me it would be a requirement for everyone," said Craig Glennie, a trustee who represents the Silver Heights-Booth Ward in St. James Assiniboia, in an email this week.
This week, school leaders in Louis Riel and Pembina Trails announced their intentions to require employees be fully vaccinated to work in their respective public schools.
The public sector employers are among the first to announce such a requirement amid ongoing debates about the legality and morality of vaccine mandates.
Greenberg applauded their leadership, given schools will be welcoming thousands of unvaccinated students to classrooms — "an ideal breeding ground" for transmission of the delta variant — in the coming weeks. At the same time, he said the absence of a universal vaccination policy is cause for concern from a public health communication standpoint.
"When provincial governments are not leading and establishing frameworks that can bring along all sectors: business, hospitals, schools, universities, etcetera, and are leaving those decisions in the hands of either sectors or individual organizations, that’s when we start to see this patchwork of policies," said the professor.
"It just sends a whole lot of mixed messaging to the population."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.