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LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice

How Churches Are Influencing Vaccine Decisions

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People often look to their faith leaders for guidance on big decisions — who to marry, how many kids to have, whether to change jobs. These days, parishioners are asking another big question: Should I get a COVID-19 vaccine?

Speaker 1: 00:00 People often look to their faith leaders for guidance on big decisions, who to marry, how many kids to have, whether to change jobs. These days parishioners are asking another big question. Should I get a COVID-19 vaccine KPBS, investigative reporter, Claire Traeger, sir tells us the answer. Local faith leaders give could impact when we reach herd immunity and the severity of future outbreaks. The future of humor,

Speaker 2: 00:29 Humanity, and freedom lies in the hands of the believing Christians in February, a large crowd gathered at the awaken church in San Marcos to hear from Dr. Simone gold, a well-known anti-vaccine doctor. She spoke with the church's founders and made several claims regarding the safety of the vaccines that have been debunked by health authorities and mainstream scientists.

Speaker 1: 01:04 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 01:05 Awaken has five locations in San Diego. It is the same church. That's been the source of significant outbreaks. And that County officials have called out for a flagrant disregard of COVID-19 health orders. Awakens anti-vaccine stance could have a broader impact on our region, says UC San Diego epidemiologist, Rebecca fielding Miller. When you have one set of people who specifically are not interested in getting vaccinated or who declined to get vaccinated, then you are more likely to see outbreaks in that group of people. The reason that that is important beyond that community is because we do, um, you know, spend time in space together. Folks who are part of a community that's not interested in vaccinating are also folks who, you know, go grocery shopping and go out to eat and whose kids go to school. But fielding Miller says faith-based communities can also be key drivers in the push to reach herd immunity. People do mix randomly ish, but not really right. And if everybody who you work with, or everybody who you go to church with everybody who you socialize with has gotten vaccinated, or is talking about getting vaccinated, then it is the social norm. It is, um, Oh, this is just what, this is what we

Speaker 3: 02:26 We're doing everything we can to encourage people to obtain the vaccination as soon as it's available to them and to get it done so we can all resume, you know, a much more normal life.

Speaker 2: 02:40 Kevin Eckery is a spokesperson for the Catholic diocese of San Diego, the Catholic church, and many other local faith-based organizations are on the other end of the spectrum from awaken. They are actively encouraging followers to get vaccinated. We have no one got infected here. [inaudible] of the Islamic center. San Diego says his mosque held a virtual session on zoom last month with two doctors from UC San Diego, to answer a member's questions and address concerns. They are also planning a vaccination clinic at the mosque in a few weeks,

Speaker 4: 03:19 Like to keep doing the right thing. And the right thing now is to promote

Speaker 2: 03:25 And rabbi Scott Meltzer of or Shalom synagogue in banker's Hill says he recently held a 90 minute lecture on why Jewish people are religiously obligated to take the COVID-19 vaccines,

Speaker 4: 03:38 A Jewish religious obligation to seek and protect health for our children, for ourselves. And for those around us, who make sure that the things are as safe as can be. Um, and health is an important measure for that. You know, life is life in this world is considered a gift and one that should be protected. And, uh, and therefore, you know, COVID vaccines are an important part of that for us.

Speaker 2: 04:04 Some local churches are taking vaccine advocacy a step further by actually helping put shots into parishioners arms. Last month, the Bayview Baptist church in Encanto held a clinic where 500 people got vaccines. Pastor Keith Brown says the event helped some who are skeptical of the vaccines, make the decision including him.

Speaker 4: 04:29 Well, I've had them come out saying that it was came out. Uh, I was skeptical, but what made me change my mind once I heard the statistics

Speaker 2: 04:41 Nationwide survey data shows that white evangelical Protestants are less likely to get vaccinated than other racial and religious groups. While other evangelical megachurches in San Diego, don't appear to be taking the same anti-vaccine stance as awaken. They are not advocating for vaccines, either Brock church's assistant pastor Mickey Stonier says his church won't be making any recommendations.

Speaker 4: 05:10 We're not medical doctors, uh, we're doctors for the heart. We encourage people to adhere to all the safety health, eat exercise. Uh, keep yourself safe.

Speaker 2: 05:23 When asked why rock church isn't promoting the vaccines, the way other churches and religious organizations are Stoney says they don't stand in judgment of what other churches are doing. Joining me is KPBS investigative reporter, Claire Traeger, sir. And Claire. Welcome. Thank you so much, Maureen, tell us more about awaken church. How many followers do they have? Well, I'm not sure exactly how many followers they have, but I do know they have five locations in San Diego. Um, and I looked them up. They have more than 10,000 likes on Facebook

Speaker 1: 06:04 Are awakened church leaders specifically telling their church goers not to get vaccinated. Well, it seems

Speaker 2: 06:11 To be that way I found on their website. I wasn't there, but their San Marcos location had a service in person with a big crowd there. And they hosted this doctor, Dr. Simone gold. Who's a pretty prominent anti vaccine doctor and was just, uh, you know, slew of misinformation about the vaccines. I mean, she kept saying it's up to you, whether you want to take the experimental COVID vaccine, but her overall message was that it hadn't been tested, that it had contributed to a lot of deaths. Just a pretty anti-vaccine message.

Speaker 1: 06:51 And do we know if anti-vax messages are happening in many more churches in the County? Well, that right.

Speaker 2: 06:57 Certainly what I was trying to find out. And I reached out to a lot of different churches locally. It seems like the other big evangelical mega churches in the County are not saying to not take the vaccine. They're not anti-vax, but they're also not saying you should take the vaccine. They're pretty adamantly. Uh, non-committal on, uh, on that question.

Speaker 1: 07:23 And so those churches aren't giving any guidance to their congregation about the vaccine. So how do they explain this kind of silence on one of the biggest topics of our time? Yeah.

Speaker 2: 07:34 Interesting. Because, you know, I think that a lot of people turn to their churches for, uh, answers to questions about what they should do. And this is a big question right now, the churches that I spoke with all said, you know, it's a personal decision, it's a medical decision and we just don't want to give an opinion on that. Um, another church locally, the, uh, the Grove said, people are confused about what to do, um, and are somewhere in the middle, but they said it's a personal medical decision that we are not qualified to advise on.

Speaker 1: 08:09 Then on the other side of the coin, one church in the South Bay that you reported on actually held a vaccine clinic, why did they make that decision? Right?

Speaker 2: 08:18 That's the, uh, Bayview Baptist church in, um, in Canto I believe. And they said that they are there to serve their members and serve the community they've been doing, uh, food drives for, for people who live around the church. And so they had this vaccine clinic as kind of another way to serve their area and serve their members.

Speaker 1: 08:39 And does that reflect a trend that's been seen nationally?

Speaker 2: 08:43 Yeah, the, uh, the Pew research center has done a nationwide survey and they did find specifically that white evangelical Protestants are least likely to get the vaccine. So 45% of white evangelicals said they will not get a vaccine versus, you know, maybe 33% of black Protestants and then a 22% of Hispanic Catholics. So those other, uh, racial and religious groups were, were much smaller than the, uh, white evangelicals.

Speaker 1: 09:18 The Catholic church originally had concerns about the use of fetal cells in the development of the COVID vaccines. But it seems to have put those issues aside and is now urging parishioners to get vaccinated.

Speaker 2: 09:32 Yes, that's right. Um, from, from the Pope on down, um, and the, the Bishop of the Catholic diocese here in San Diego wrote a letter to be read at all of the local parishes saying, please go get your vaccine. Um, it's, you know, part of our duty at as Catholics. Um, and also, you know, I spoke with, uh, Jewish rabbis and, um, Muslim moms, and they also said the same thing that they are advising their followers, that it's, um, not only a good idea for them personally, but kind of a religious obligation to protect the health of others, to go get their vaccines.

Speaker 1: 10:12 Now, people don't always do what faith leaders tell them to do. So what difference do health experts say it makes when churches come out for or against vaccines?

Speaker 2: 10:23 That's, that's very true. And that's a good point. I think one thing that, um, at least, uh, uh, epidemiologists from UC San Diego said is that, um, studies are finding, it's not just, you know, what your faith leader tells you to do, but kind of that peer pressure, if you know someone who's gotten a vaccine, you're more likely to get a vaccine because you see that that person was okay or, you know, whatever it is, or it's just kind of becomes more of a collective. Oh, okay. Everyone for my church is doing this. I guess that's just what we're doing. So I will do it too. So I think, you know, if the faith leaders have an impact on some people in the congregation that can kind of carry through, um, the rest of the congregation for people who might not listen to the faith leader, but still do what those around them or are doing.

Speaker 1: 11:14 Okay. I've been speaking with KPBS, investigative reporter, Claire Tresor Claire. Thank you. Thank you so much.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.