23 Oct 2021

Covid-19: Direct action needed to fight vaccine misinformation amongst Māori - kaumātua

8:16 am on 23 October 2021

Jimmy Ellingham, Manawatū reporter

Beating misinformation could hold the key to lifting the lagging Māori Covid-19 vaccination rate in the greater Manawatū region.

Vaccination Centre Sign

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Regional councillor and Rangitāne iwi kaumātua Wiremu Te Awe Awe said some people had been sucked in by wrong information about the Covid-19 vaccine.

Te Awe Awe told Checkpoint that had to be overcome in the drive to hit the 90 percent vaccination target and direct action was needed to reach unjabbed people.

"We need to perhaps visit them one-on-one - probably very similar to what they did up in Auckland in the [Pacific] Island community.

"Let's go to the community directly, encourage those ones in their homes, because some of them believe ... the misinformation that's going around."

The latest available figures to Saturday show 83 percent of eligible people within the MidCentral District Health Board's boundaries have received their first vaccine and 64 percent are fully vaccinated.

Registered nurse Bronwyn Hodds administers a vaccine in the clinic at The Plaza, Palmerston North.

Registered nurse Bronwyn Hodds administers a vaccine in the clinic at The Plaza, Palmerston North. Photo: Jimmy Ellingham, RNZ

Rates for Māori in the region, which includes Palmerston North, Ōtaki, Manawatū and Tararua, are 65.7 percent and 44.8 percent, respectively.

Those numbers are close to the national average, but MidCentral is one of six health boards Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare has said must do more to increase the Māori vaccination rate.

Vaccinations were becoming mandatory for many jobs and industries so Māori networks needed to mobilise to get people jabbed, Te Awe Awe said.

Adele Small, the board's iwi and Māori engagement lead, was confident the vaccination rate would hit 90 percent for Māori. She said the board was working with iwi and Māori health providers, and was starting to see gains.

"We just need to keep doing what we're doing and keep engaging with our communities to understand why they may not have presented at this stage of the programme for their vaccine.

"Is it about access? How can we get closer to them? And then if it's about hesitancy how are we having those robust conversations with them, with people that they know and trust, to help us to understand what their viewpoint is."

When iwi and Māori health providers saw pockets of hesitancy they would get Dr Kelvin Billinghurst, the board's chief medical officer and clinical executive, to speak to groups and share accurate information.

The Māori population in the MidCentral area skewed towards a younger demographic and the board was working to reach those people through visits to schools and workplaces.

Board members had also attended rural sales days, run evening clinics in remote areas, and set up a vaccination clinic in the middle of Palmerston North's busiest shopping zone, The Plaza mall, in the hope people would simply walk in and get a vaccination.

When RNZ visited this week Elaine Skipper, 56, of Ngāti Raukawa and Rangitāne, was doing exactly that. She was initially hesitant to get a jab for religious reasons, but changed her mind.

"I've been thinking about it for the last three weeks or so, and I had to do something in the mall here so I walked past and I thought 'why not', so I got it done."

Taran Steffensen and Kathryn Smith are unvaccinated, but plan to get their Covid-19 shots.

Taran Steffensen, 26, and Kathryn Smith, 37, are unvaccinated, but plan to get their Covid-19 shots. Photo: Jimmy Ellingham, RNZ

Taran Steffensen, 26, wasn't vaccinated yet, but also planned to go to the shopping centre clinic to get his first shot.

"I'm still so young and I'm intending on going to UCOL (polytech) next year to get into the mental health and well-being sector of life," he said.

"I know it's mandatory now and I also want to travel later on in life, so it's a massive holdback, you know, if I haven't been vaccinated."

Kathryn Smith, 37, is also unvaccinated, but after initial hesitancy has decided she will get her two shots.

"I had a lot of conflicting information, but because I work in retail and my children are in daycare, I'll be getting it done here in Palmy sometime soon."

About 100 people a day are visiting the shopping centre clinic.

Stacey Hoggart, the board's Covid response vaccination co-ordinator, said people who had not engaged with the standard vaccination sites were more likely to visit the mall clinic.

"We're definitely finding our younger demographics are coming through The Plaza.

"We've noticed a lot of busy young mums and dads coming in with their children and being able to, opportunistically, get their vaccines done."

MidCentral's Covid response manager, Bronwen Warren, said the 90 percent target was tantalisingly close, helped by a successful Super Saturday.

Typically, about 5 to 7 percent of people were hesitant to get vaccinations and for the Covid-19 shots, that could be more, Warren said.

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