Hospitalized with COVID-19, once-hesitant Manitoba Mennonite woman urges others to get vaccines

Katharina Giesbrecht didn’t plan to get vaccinated. It took a terrifying brush with COVID-19 to convince the once-hesitant Mennonite woman to change her mind and book her jab.

“I was very against the vaccine for the longest time,” she said. “I said, ‘You know what, let’s just let God deal with it.… He knows what the next step is, whether we die or we don’t.'”

Giesbrecht is sharing her story in hopes of persuading vaccine-hesitant members of her faith community to reconsider — something that could be a challenge, given pockets of southern Manitoba, home to many Mennonites, have the lowest vaccination rates in the province.

As Giesbrecht grew ill in mid-May, for the first few days, she considered waiting it out alone at home. She didn’t initially believe she had COVID-19, in part because she says she adhered to masking and public health guidelines.

Then, her condition deteriorated. She got tested in her home community of Altona, and her results came back positive a few days later.

Giesbrecht, 33, was hospitalized at Boundary Trails Health Centre, between Winkler and Morden, just over 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

Boundary Trails Health Centre has seen an influx of COVID-19 patients in the past couple of weeks, so much so that the hospital’s oxygen concentrator has been pushed close to its capacity. (Google Street View)

She developed pneumonia and could barely breathe.

“I was freaking out and panicking,” Giesbrecht said. “Prayer has always been very powerful and that’s what helped me get through my stay at the hospital due to COVID.”

Giesbrecht spent four days alone on oxygen before being discharged.

Boundary Trails has seen a surge in critical care patients amid Manitoba’s third wave, so much so that the hospital’s oxygen concentrator has been pushed close to its capacity.

Over the weekend, about 40 per cent of transfers from rural health centres to larger hospitals in Winnipeg and Brandon came from Boundary Trails, said Dr. Ganesan Abbu, a special care unit doctor and anesthetist there.

Local experts amplify message

Abbu recently told CBC News that nearly all of the COVID-19 patients admitted at Boundary Trails have been unvaccinated. It’s common for those patients to say they believe the pandemic is a hoax and espouse other myths about the vaccine, he said. Some have remained steadfast in their beliefs even on death’s door.

Boundary Trails happens to be surrounded by Mennonite communities that provincial officials say have higher rates of vaccine hesitancy due to distrust of government, misinformation and other factors.

Dr. Ganesan Abbu, a physician at Boundary Trails, says it’s routine to hear gravely ill patients suggest the pandemic is a hoax. (CBC)

The Stanley health district, which surrounds Winkler and Morden districts, has the lowest rate, with about 13 per cent of adults there were vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to provincial data.

Winkler’s is about 25 per cent. Neighbouring Altona health district, where Giesbrecht lives, has a rate of 37 per cent.

Morden’s rate is better, at just over 51 per cent, but still lags behind the provincial rate: 62 per cent of Manitobans over the age of 12, and nearly 66 per cent of those 18 and over, have received at least one dose.

Provincial officials have said the key to spurring vaccine uptake in these areas is to amplify voices of trusted local political, religious and health leaders.

Abbu has lived and worked in Winkler for over two decades and says he understands the need to bridge cultural and religious gaps. 

During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, he says he helped his school-age children, both now doctors, on a project. They handed out health and vaccine information pamphlets to local churches written in Low German, a dialect spoken by many southern Manitoba Mennonites.

“We tried to reach out in a way that engages that segment of the community, that tries to build trust,” he said. 

“Vaccines and antibiotics are the two things that have made the human race live longer … and I think that’s the kind of positive message we need to use.”

‘COVID is real’

Dr. Don Klassen has a similar perspective.

Klassen recently recorded videos with Winkler Mayor Martin Harder in an effort to reach those who remain on the fence about the vaccine.

“If people trust their doctors to look after serious illnesses, for them to give them an anesthetic, to do surgery on them, to look after their heart attacks, I’d say we could be trustworthy in this realm as well,” he said.

The 72-year-old family physician and anesthetist was born in Winkler and has practised medicine there for over four decades. He’s also Mennonite and a churchgoer.

“There is no conflict in my mind about getting vaccinated and being a person of faith,” he said. “COVID is real.… Of all the tools that we’ve got, vaccination is the one that’s going to potentially lead us to return to a more normal life.”

Giesbrecht, who now has a vaccine appointment booked for later this month, continues to share her experience with those in her life. A few have already changed their minds, she said.

“Trust the doctors,” she said. “God gave us doctors for a reason, and medicine that we can use to help us feel better.”

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