N.S. health officials draw lessons from COVID-19 outbreak in Mennonite community

·5 min read

HALIFAX — Philip Dueck says he's seen COVID-19 cases hit nearly every home in his small town as an outbreak of the disease rolled through the isolated northern Nova Scotia community.

“There's the odd (household) that's missed, but pretty much every household got some of it,” Dueck, who owns a firewood business in Northfield, N.S., said in a recent interview.

The Mennonite community of roughly 300 people is about 75 kilometres north of Halifax in rural Hants County. Since the provincial Health Department began reporting on the outbreak on Sept. 13, it has not identified the location. Instead, it referred in news releases to a cluster of cases among a “defined, unvaccinated group” in the province's northern health zone.

But Dueck and others in the province's Mennonite community say it was no secret where the cluster was occurring.

When the outbreak was first reported, rumours began to circulate about its location in the northern region, said Franklin Isaac, a deacon at the Mennonite Church of God in Christ near Tatamagouche, N.S. Isaac said he didn't know much about Northfield — which belongs to a different branch of the denomination — but conversations with other Mennonite groups in the area helped him pinpoint the location of the outbreak.

Dr. Ryan Sommers, the regional medical officer of health for the northern zone has been at the forefront of the province's response to the outbreak. He said officials estimate between 240 and 250 people in a community of 300 have been infected with COVID-19 during the pandemic's fourth wave. About 60 per cent of the cases were confirmed with lab testing, while the others have been labelled as “probable.”

Probable cases are defined as people who are symptomatic and live with lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 but don’t get tested for the disease, he said in an interview Monday. About half a dozen people have been hospitalized due to the disease, he added.

Sommers did not identify where the outbreak occurred, but he addressed how officials tackled the problem as case counts climbed.

Now on the other side of the outbreak, with some 95 per cent of the cases having been deemed “recovered,” Sommers said the incident taught him important lessons on how to handle COVID-19 in a socially and geographically isolated population, while avoiding stigmatizing the group.

In dealing with the outbreak, Sommers said collaborating with community leaders or “champions” was key in developing a relationship with those in the group. “Those individuals are influencers for this population and working with them early … makes a huge difference," he said.

A big challenge remains selling the benefits of vaccination to a population that "traditionally has not been one to accept vaccines,” he said. Dueck, for example, said he has not "heard of anybody that's interested in (getting vaccinated.)" He called COVID-19 "a sickness we don't like, but most of us agree that it's not so terrible as it seems." Sommers said health officials will continue to work with the community leaders and share information.

Marlene Epp, a history professor at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo, said the Northfield community arrived in Nova Scotia in the 1980s. They have their roots in a group of Mennonites who travelled from Western Canada to Central America in the 1920s due to resistance against laws mandating that children attend public school.

Epp said during a recent interview the Mennonites eventually migrated back north. While most groups travelled to Ontario and Manitoba, the Kleine Gemeinde — the group of Mennonites now settled in Northfield — left their base in Belize to settle in Nova Scotia, likely due to low land costs and added isolation.

“Mennonites generally have their origins in a belief system that saw them put a lot of emphasis on separation between the church and state, but also separation between the church and secular society, believing that they could live out their religious ideals more separate from society which they considered to be evil or fallen,” she said. She noted that there is a spectrum within the denomination stretching from progressive Mennonites to those who are more conservative.

Sommers said next steps involve stressing the importance of getting vaccinated, and he has recently sent a letter encouraging residents to get their shots.

He said the group has been cooperative as teams of health officials have conducted their testing, and they've been keen on adhering to public health measures. The largely tight-knit and remote nature of the community has also been helpful in preventing spread of the disease to outside areas.

The province's strategy, Epp said, is effective within a community that is wary of government interference.

“They look to their religious leadership as very important. If there's a change of heart or new advice from the religious leadership, then the community will follow,” she said.

Aside from forming connections with leaders, Sommers also said being patient with smaller communities as they come to a decision has been another key part of reaching out to the group.

“It's unfortunate that you have an outbreak at this size, but the community has been great to work with," Sommers said. "It's required us to be a lot more creative and trying to be more tailored to populations."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press

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