Churches take active role in COVID-19 vaccination efforts

A Walgreens employee gives John Brown a vaccination shot at St. Philip AME Church in Atlanta Saturday, March 13, 2020. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
A Walgreens employee gives John Brown a vaccination shot at St. Philip AME Church in Atlanta Saturday, March 13, 2020. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Bishop James H. Morton sits with his left sleeve rolled up.

“Take your shot,” Morton says as a health care worker deftly inserts a needle in his arm.

The 74-year-old senior pastor of New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur appears surprised that he didn’t feel the shot and jokes with the vaccinator to “give me another.”

The 35-second video was posted on social media to encourage congregants and people in the Black community to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He and other clergy are putting themselves on the front lines of ensuring underserved communities have access to the vaccine — and are taking it.

Bishop James H. Morton, pastor of New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur, recorded and posted his COVID-19 vaccination on the church's Facebook page to encourage members to take the vaccine. FACEBOOK
Caption
Bishop James H. Morton, pastor of New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur, recorded and posted his COVID-19 vaccination on the church's Facebook page to encourage members to take the vaccine. FACEBOOK

Credit: FACEBOOK

Credit: FACEBOOK

“I told them to get the shot, all of you,” Morton said, then jokingly added that he “even told them that we’re ready to go back in the sanctuary and I’m not letting anyone in who doesn’t have the shots. I told them I want to see their card. We want to stop the pandemic.”

About 34% of Georgians who’ve died from COVID-19 are Black and 5% are Hispanic, according to state data. Additionally, state data shows about 39% of Georgians who’ve been hospitalized are Black and nearly 11% are Hispanic.

State data, however, shows Black and Hispanic Georgians are getting vaccinated at disproportionately lower rates.

About 21% of Georgians vaccinated are Black, although they make up about 32% of the state’s population. Only 2.5% of Georgians who’ve received the vaccine are Hispanic, although they make up about 10% of the state’s population. State officials note that race and ethnicity data of recipients is often missing or may not be supplied by the recipient.

Still, experts agree that community-based outreach is an important part of the drive to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and the reach of houses of worship in these communities is far and wide.

In the Black and Latino communities, churches are among the first places some turn to know what is happening. People look to their church leaders for guidance, and many of their congregations include older people who are the hardest hit by COVID-19.

A positive word or act of encouragement from a trusted church leader can have more impact than science or health professionals in getting skeptical people to take the vaccine. Additionally, many houses of worship have health ministries, so offering the vaccine is not a far stretch as part of their community work.

Volunteers are calling members to make sure they know about the vaccine, and can navigate websites to book appointments, and some are offering rides to vaccine sites. Churches are also partnering with drugstore chains and government health agencies to hold vaccine drives. The state health department has also worked with faith leaders to provide information about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

U.S. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, D-Ga., who also serves as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, recently visited the Morehouse School of Medicine to look at vaccine efforts.

“We know that churches are the oldest, most indigenous institutions in the African American community and we need to see continuing partnerships between our health care community and the faith community and the government, so that we provide wraparound approaches to care,” he said.

Recently, the 38-year-old Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp offering to share information with their congregations and distribute the vaccine.

Although they’ve yet to get a response, the Rev. Shanan Jones, who has taken the vaccine, said the organization is still working to get information out to underserved communities through events like community forums with medical professionals and scientists. Jones is the group’s president and pastor of The Gathering Baptist Church in College Park, which lost one of its younger members to the virus.

Beverly Sell, MSN, RN, of the Hall County Health Department, vaccinates St. Michael's Catholic Church parishioner Roberto Sierra. The Gainesville parish served as a vaccination site for nearly 100 members on Feb. 18. The clinic was held, in part, to increase vaccination rates in the area's Hispanic community. (Michael Alexander / Georgia Bulletin)
Caption
Beverly Sell, MSN, RN, of the Hall County Health Department, vaccinates St. Michael's Catholic Church parishioner Roberto Sierra. The Gainesville parish served as a vaccination site for nearly 100 members on Feb. 18. The clinic was held, in part, to increase vaccination rates in the area's Hispanic community. (Michael Alexander / Georgia Bulletin)

Credit: Michael Alexander / Georgia Bulletin

Credit: Michael Alexander / Georgia Bulletin

For many, it’s a matter of concern about the side effects of the vaccine, lack of access and distrust of the government and medical community. That hesitancy extends beyond the Latino and Black communities. About 45% of white evangelical Protestants said they would definitely or probably not get the vaccine, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

Nationally, churches in cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and Milwaukee have held vaccination events, and the movement is growing in Georgia.

St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Gainesville partnered a few weeks ago on a clinic with Hall County health department officials to administer 100 vaccines.

The church’s pastor, Father Tim Hepburn, said some of the vaccine recipients were from the Hispanic community. They wanted to do more, but were limited by the number of slots available.

“We’d like to do it again,” he said.

This past weekend, St. Mary’s Road United Methodist Church in a predominantly Black area of south Columbus held a vaccination event, where 500 people registered. Medical professionals, mostly from the St. Mary’s congregation, were to give the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires just a single dose.

The event, which was scheduled for Saturday, was done to enable more people to attend, with drive-thru and walk-up service to allow greater access for those who live in the neighborhood and don’t have transportation.

St. Mary’s Road United Methodist Church in Columbus, led by Pastor Adriane McGee Burgess, planned a weekend vaccination event which registered 500 people. (Courtesy of Pastor Adriane McGee Burgess)
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St. Mary’s Road United Methodist Church in Columbus, led by Pastor Adriane McGee Burgess, planned a weekend vaccination event which registered 500 people. (Courtesy of Pastor Adriane McGee Burgess)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Pastor Adriane McGee Burgess said many of her church members are older or have pre-existing conditions, so getting the vaccine was critical.

“I’d hate to bring (COVID-19) to someone’s home, or a funeral or assisted living facility,” she said.

Pam Kirkland, public relations and information coordinator for the West Central Health District, which includes Columbus, is seeking additional faith partners.

Kirkland said the department hopes to make inroads into hard-to-reach communities, who “may be less hesitant if they are talking to members of their church, people they know and trust, especially their pastor.”

Some of the mosques in Georgia are also providing information about the vaccine and where to get inoculated.

Dr. Fawzi Mohammad, a vascular and interventional radiologist, is also a member of the board of the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta in Fayetteville.

Dr. Fawzi Mohammad, a member of the board of the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta, said people place a great deal of trust in their faith leaders. (Courtesy of Dr. Fawzi Mohammad)
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Dr. Fawzi Mohammad, a member of the board of the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta, said people place a great deal of trust in their faith leaders. (Courtesy of Dr. Fawzi Mohammad)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

While the ICCA is not hosting vaccine clinics, they have taken steps to offer lectures about COVID-19, the pandemic and how people can protect themselves, including sending links to vaccine resources.

“People rely heavily on the faith community for a lot of their life decisions,” he said. “So more likely they will listen to a faith-based message than a political one or even from health care providers they may not trust.”

Volunteer Morgan Hodge helps Terri Fleming with her paperwork after Hodge received her vaccination shot at St. Philip AME Church in Atlanta Saturday, March 13, 2020. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Volunteer Morgan Hodge helps Terri Fleming with her paperwork after Hodge received her vaccination shot at St. Philip AME Church in Atlanta Saturday, March 13, 2020. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Rev. William D. Watley’s 91-year-old mother survived a bout of COVID-19 and was hospitalized for more than a month.

Watley, 72, senior pastor of St. Philip AME Church in Atlanta, doesn’t want to see anyone go through what his family experienced.

The church recently partnered with Walgreens to vaccinate hundreds of people in one weekend. Volunteers manned expanded phone banks and helped those who were not as technologically adept register to get the vaccine.

“The role of the church is not just the soul, but we’re concerned with the whole person,” said Watley. “Since this is a crisis, it’s important that the faith community be on the cutting edge of meeting that very critical moment, and that has not been easy because the decision about vaccine sites is beyond out of our hands.”

New Beginning’s Morton said he wants to see people back in the church.

“It’s so important,” he said of the vaccine. “Look how many of us have died.”

He said he lost his eldest brother Bishop Clarence Leslie “C.L.” Morton Jr. to complications from the virus not long after he attended the funeral of another bishop.

He said several members of his church reached out to him to thank him for encouraging them to get vaccinated.

“I have another huge weapon besides my mask, besides social distancing, besides washing my hands. I have the ultimate weapon,” he said. “God kept us all through COVID. He can keep us through a shot.”