One day last week, somewhere in what must be a daily crush of meetings and reading and work to lead Manitoba’s mass vaccination efforts, Dr. Joss Reimer found some time to speak directly to a handful of church congregations in southern Manitoba.
In the session, held over the video-conferencing app Zoom and inspired by meetings between church leaders and the province’s vaccine task force last month, pastors from Steinbach and Morden asked Reimer questions on behalf of their flocks. For nearly 40 minutes, Reimer answered with the same clear-spoken calm she’s known for in news conferences.
She explained how the vaccine came to be developed and approved so quickly, but still with the same strong safety guardrails in place. She explained how we know the vaccines are safe for pregnant women, how the vaccines don’t use any cells from aborted fetuses, and why it’s important to get vaccinated even if you’ve had COVID-19.
"I think it’s a wonderful way for communities to support each other," said Reimer, who grew up in Winkler. She later added a gentle, personal appeal: "I really want us to all do this together."
This discussion is one of many Reimer has held with groups across Manitoba, and people are listening. Pastors shared the video of this session with their congregations; by Thursday, the video had over 3,500 views, a robust figure for such a demographically targeted discussion about vaccines and public health.
There is, clearly, interest in what Reimer has to say, especially when space is created for her to speak the most directly to a community, to close the distance between those at the top of the province’s vaccine machinery and those who are trying to sift through a torrent of debate and opinion, trying to sort it all out.
So I thought of that video again on Wednesday, when Reimer turned this focus to a different community. Early in that day’s vaccine news conference, Reimer spoke about how the province is working to support vaccination for temporary foreign workers, many of them labourers from Latin American countries.
"We have heard that some employers are not supportive of their workers getting vaccinated," she said. "So I want this to be very clear: that you do not need the permission or the support of your boss to get the vaccine."
Then, speaking in deft Spanish, she spoke directly to those workers, repeating the same information. It was a remarkable moment, a living example not only of the value of linguistic diversity in the province’s top leadership, but also of the power and potential of reaching directly across barriers.
What that moment, and the outreach Reimer and others have done in southern Manitoba, should remind us is this: to get out of the pandemic, to get to a point where we can relax more restrictions, rebuild social and community life and protect the health system, we need to get the vast majority of Manitobans vaccinated.
"We have heard that some employers are not supportive of their workers getting vaccinated. So I want this to be very clear: that you do not need the permission or the support of your boss to get the vaccine." – Dr. Joss Reimer
And to get the vast majority of Manitobans vaccinated, we ought to remember how this mess started.
It’s strange to remember now the way we went into the pandemic, the way each day of March 2020 churned with a mix of confusion and apprehension and the sense that the rug of everything familiar had just been yanked out from under us. But I do remember the little stories of hands reaching out to lift others up.
We told some of those stories in this paper. Many more happened out of the spotlight. There were the folks who checked in with isolating neighbours. The people who delivered groceries to seniors or even total strangers. The Facebook groups that sprang up to connect people with helpers, under the motto "we’re in this together."
Over time, the urgency of that community networking fell away. Manitoba’s first wave was, in comparison to other jursidictions, little more than a trickle. After that we learned to live with the pandemic, as chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin often says, and when cases surged there was often more frustration than communal spirit.
In the midst of that tension, it was easy for loud voices to draw a great deal of attention. There were rallies against restrictions, and self-styled experts vociferously posting vaccine misinformation on social media, though it remains unclear whether the noise they generate is proportionate to their actual influence.
Surely, those who sow misinformation can do a great deal of damage. And there are communities, both geographic and demographic, in which vaccine uptake is lagging. But as Manitoba looks to beat back COVID-19 one shot at a time, it may very well prove that the barriers to uptake were not so very high, or so difficult to overcome.
You can see those barriers being chipped away now, all around the province.
They were being chipped away one morning this week at the Oak Table’s community outreach hub in Osborne Village, where a vaccine clinic put shots in the arms of some of Winnipeg’s most vulnerable people. They were being chipped away with every information session, and every new way and place to get a vaccine.
In January, when a vocal group of mask opponents held a small rally in Steinbach, that city was briefly held up as ground zero of Manitoba’s fight against COVID-19 misinformation, but ever since a vaccination supersite opened there in mid-May, appointments have been booked solid, and the region’s vaccination rate is steadily climbing.
Or, consider the instructive example set this week, when the province opened a pilot walk-in clinic at its Leila Avenue supersite. On the second day of the walk-in, it had given out all 1,761 earmarked doses in just two hours; the next day, more than 100 people were already waiting in line by 7:30 a.m., 90 minutes before it even opened.
Getting Manitobans vaccinated, it turns out, may simply come down to those points of connection that helped get us through the pandemic’s beginning.
The province acknowledged the "overwhelming response" to the walk-in, which was open for both first and second doses. On Thursday, it said more of them will be coming.
Getting Manitobans vaccinated, it turns out, may simply come down to those points of connection that helped get us through the pandemic’s beginning. Talking to friends, family and neighbours. Reaching across linguistic and cultural barriers. Making the vaccine widely available and convenient to get at all times and in all areas.
It doesn’t actually matter why people get vaccinated. It doesn’t matter what road they took to arrive at that decision, or what concerns they had before they did. It only matters that, in the end, as many of us as possible choose to roll up our sleeves, and join in the steady march of getting our province to herd immunity.
We’re getting closer, fast. To go all the way, maybe we, like Reimer, just have to meet people where they’re at.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.