Two community leaders from Steinbach have joined a volunteer advisory committee tasked with encouraging vaccine uptake and shaping Manitoba’s reopening strategy.
Kyle Penner, assistant pastor of Grace Mennonite Church, and Kris Ontong, host of the Barangay Canada video podcast and a columnist for the Manitoba Filipino Journal, are members of the committee, which is co-chaired by epidemiologist Cynthia Carr and Dayna Spring, CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg.
Last Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister unveiled a three-phase reopening strategy, synched to summer holiday benchmarks and tied to vaccination rates, into which the committee had input.
Four reopening categories—gathering and socializing, travel and tourism, shopping and services, and dining out and entertainment—are addressed by the strategy, the province said in a release.
Reopening activity levels hinge on first- and second-dose immunization targets for Canada Day (July 1), Terry Fox Day (Aug. 2), and Labour Day (Sept. 6).
By Canada Day, if at least 70 percent of Manitobans aged 12 and over are partially vaccinated, and 25 percent are fully vaccinated, then businesses, services, and facilities can reopen at 25 percent capacity and gathering sizes will increase, the province said.
By Terry Fox Day, if at least 75 percent of Manitobans have one dose, and 50 percent have two doses, then capacity limits will rise to 50 percent or more.
All businesses, services, and facilities can reopen with "limited" restrictions by Labour Day if at least 80 percent of Manitobans are partially vaccinated and 75 percent are fully vaccinated.
More details on each reopening will be announced in the week leading up to each holiday. Throughout the summer, the government wants Manitobans to get vaccinated and follow public health orders, to curb the spread of the coronavirus in communities and hospitals.
"The more of us who get vaccinated, the faster we can regain our freedoms and enjoy what we’ve lost this past year and a half," Pallister said in a release.
Kyle Penner, who has promoted vaccine uptake among Mennonites, said the province’s reopening plan strikes a balance.
"They’ve heard all the voices and I think they chose a path down the middle."
With a reopening roadmap in place, the advisory committee is now focused on grassroots ways to encourage vaccine uptake, especially in hard-to-reach parts of Manitoba.
Penner said the committee, which must grapple with tight timelines and the limitations of virtual meetings, is up to the task, in part because of its diversity.
"I think (the government) has done a very decent job, collecting people from across the province from a variety of backgrounds," he said.
Not all members of the committee have made their identity public, and Penner wouldn’t disclose the size of the group. He said he was tapped because he’s a religious leader from Southern Health, a region where pockets of vaccine hesitancy persist.
Penner said balancing expediency with accessibility, and first dose appointments with second dose appointments, can be challenging.
In Steinbach, Penner said many people waited for the super site to open before they booked an appointment.
"Ever since the super site’s been open, it’s been booked solid for four or more weeks. So there’s obviously a pent-up demand for vaccine in Southeast Manitoba here."
He said he suspects there are many others who intend to get vaccinated but aren’t in a rush. He declined to comment on whether the province waited too long to open a super site in Steinbach, but said the Canada Day benchmark is within reach.
"I remain hopeful that we will have strong uptake in our community."
When it comes to incentivizing vaccinations, Penner said eliminating self-isolation requirements and easing visitation restrictions are what Steinbach residents want the most.
Penner noted the province’s reopening strategy also preserves the self-reliance for which Mennonites are known.
"They’ve put the control in our hands. We can choose what we want to do with this. We can either follow public health restrictions and get vaccinated and be almost entirely open by Labour Day, or we can choose to continue to live like we have for the past 15 months, risk more outbreaks and risk filling up our ICUs."
When Penner was asked to join the advisory committee, he didn’t hesitate.
"I see this as a way to love our neighbours. I see this as a way to work for the common good of our community. Any work I can do to help that is a no-brainer for me."
Kris Ontong, who immigrated to Steinbach from the Philippines in 2010, said he is the voice of first-generation immigrants on the advisory committee.
In addition to hosting Barangay Canada and writing for the Manitoba Filipino Journal, Ontong is also vice-president for program and media at the Philippine Heritage Council of Manitoba, and a past president of the Southeast Manitoba Filipino Association.
He said yes to the advisory committee role "out of a sense of civic duty."
"I have a young family and I want to make sure that the future is secure for them," he explained.
Earlier this year, Ontong was dismayed by two provincial studies on COVID-19 infections in minority communities.
"Both of them showed the racialized community in Manitoba, including the Filipino community, were disproportionately represented (in COVID cases)," Ontong said.
Locally, Ontong said many Filipinos work in manufacturing, health-care, and retail—jobs that put them at a higher risk of infection. When they arrive home, it’s often to multi-generational households where the virus can spread.
Ontong said he’s discussed the insights of Dr. Anand Kumar, a Winnipeg intensive care physician and infectious disease specialist, with the committee. Kumar has encouraged the province to ensure those with high-risk occupations are prioritized in the vaccine rollout.
Ontong also plans to use his media platforms to do "targeted messaging" on vaccination and share the content with ethnic-cultural associations around the province. Bite-sized information on social media can reach farther than government messaging, Ontong said.
"That is what I believe to be the key, to give proper messaging to the community," he said. "You have to be provided with the right information to make a well-informed decision."
Ontong said vaccine hesitancy in the Filipino community tends to be rooted in the worry that an adverse reaction to a vaccine could cause them to miss work. Ontong said he tries to assure those individuals that it’s much riskier to go unvaccinated against COVID-19.