Jan. 26, 2021 -- When Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom synagogue in Washington, DC, enrolled in a clinical trial of the Moderna vaccine last July, he wanted to make a difference in the fight against COVID-19.
Herzfeld has since become a “poster child” for vaccination. His widely seen videos on TikTok show him getting his shot in July and then receiving a medical hero award this month for his advocacy. He has also persuaded at least one other rabbi in Maryland to join a clinical trial.
The encouragement from religious leaders is important, especially amid a sluggish U.S. vaccine rollout and continuing signs that people are hesitant to get the vaccine. A recent Pew Research survey found that half of white evangelicals and 59% of Black Protestants say they definitely will not or probably will not get the COVID-19 vaccine. About one-third of Catholics (32%) and white nonevangelical Protestants (35%) said the same.
Different religious and racial groups, too, have unique concerns about the vaccine. Conservative Catholics and evangelicals, for example, are less likely to be vaccinated if the vaccines involved fetal tissue or cells. That’s why having leaders of various religions publicly support the vaccines is so important.
Other rabbis have echoed Herzfeld: Get vaccinated. Three of the most senior rabbis in ultra-Orthodox Judaism -- Chaim Kanievsky, Gershon Edelstein, and Shalom Cohen -- recommended recently that “anyone who has the option of getting the vaccine should get it.”
They argue the vaccines have been proved safe and were developed using accepted scientific methods. These comments are particularly important in ultra-Orthodox communities because the views of rabbinical leaders govern public attitudes.
Pastor Marshall Mitchell of Salem Baptist Church in Abington, PA, is also leading by example. He received Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine last month to help restore trust in vaccines among the African American community.
Mitchell is a key player with the Black Doctors COVID Consortium. He says it's not a “maybe,” but a must that Black people get vaccinated, given they are dying at a higher rate from the virus.
"I've probably encountered hundreds of people who are COVID-positive, and I was very fortunate to be designated as one of the frontline people," Mitchell told ABC 6 Action News.
Moral Dilemmas and Religious Teachings
For some religions, leaders see the vaccine not just as important for individual health, but as a moral imperative to be mindful of the needs of others.
Imam Ammar Amonette of the Islamic Center in Richmond, VA, says Muslim teaching supports vaccination.
“In case of an epidemic, you’re not allowed to refuse vaccination even if there’s a slight danger to you of a reaction. Although you may be able to refuse treatment when you’re ill, you can’t endanger others in the community. We have a religious duty and obligation to be vaccinated as long as competent science and medical authorities approve the vaccine.”
The Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently stated publicly that it’s morally acceptable to take the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines even if the vaccine’s research involved cell lines from aborted fetuses.
“In view of the gravity of the current pandemic and the lack of availability of alternative vaccines, the reasons to accept the new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are sufficiently serious to justify their use, despite their remote connection to morally compromised cell lines,” the bishops said in December.
The bishops went a step further and called taking the vaccine “an act of charity toward the other members of our community.”
“Since the pandemic began, it’s been extremely important for us to educate our extremely diverse community that includes refugees and African Americans. We have a lot of people who have experienced oppression and discrimination. It’s not surprising that they are somewhat skeptical of authorities and may be prone to misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories,” says Amonette.
He reassures people that Islam is not against vaccination even when ingredients come from pork. “Anything that saves lives takes precedence over food prohibitions. Protecting the health of the community takes precedence over some other details of the law.”
African Americans have a long history of distrusting medical research, especially since the Tuskegee experiment that began in 1932 and ran for 40 years. The researchers misled patients with syphilis about the facts of the study and withheld treatment despite penicillin being used for the disease in 1947.
When Reuters news service interviewed a dozen Black church leaders in December, all said that they thought the vaccine was necessary to end the crisis, but only one was willing to endorse it outright. Most said they wanted more information to be able to tell their parishioners how the vaccine works in the body, where they could get it, and possible side effects.
“As a pastor and as a health care worker, I can see why people should take it, because of the devastation that I’ve seen. But I also understand why the African-American community does not trust it because of how we’ve been treated in the past,” said Pastor Reginald Belton of First Baptist Church of Brownsville in Brooklyn, NY, who also performs pastoral care at a hospital.
Ohev Sholom synagogue, which has 250 families in Washington, DC, and Maryland, is updating its members frequently about when the vaccine will be available. “We are calling seniors to encourage them to be vigilant and sign up for appointments as soon as the government announces they are open. I encourage anyone who is eligible to sign up and get the shot. If we’re going to defeat this virus, we need everyone’s help,” says Herzfeld.
His message to people who refuse to get vaccinated when it’s widely available is stay home.
Public Health Partnerships
Clergy have an important role to play in messaging and communication about the vaccine and getting people access to it. “Focusing on trusted messengers such as religious leaders have been a part of every national public health strategy,” says Mimi Kiser, senior program director of the Interfaith Health Program and an assistant professor at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta.
Georgia is one of 11 states taking part in a National Institutes of Health research effort to counter COVID-19 disparities among communities of color. In Atlanta, historically black Morehouse School of Medicine reached out to Emory and the two schools have partnered to engage with the local Black community, including church leaders, says Kiser.
NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, who is a regular churchgoer, has talked about the COVID-19 vaccines with different Christian faith groups to counter misinformation, according to an interview with The Washington Post. He’s consulted with the Rev. Russell Moore, who heads the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, and California megachurch Pastor Rick Warren. And he held two private calls with groups of about 30 faith influencers, the Post reported.
Collins explained that a cell line derived from an elective abortion in 1972 is used often in biotechnology but is not used in the production of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The cell line is part of the preparation of the vaccine candidates produced by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca that are now in phase III trials.
That cell line “is sometimes used just as a lab bench experiment to make sure that everything is working the way it’s supposed to,” he told Moore.
Collins also denied there was any truth to conspiracy theories about the vaccines. Some evangelical pastors are urging their members to reject vaccines as amoral. Guillermo Maldonado, founding pastor of the Miami-based King Jesus International Ministry, has promoted conspiracy theories about the vaccine altering DNA and being used to track people. The Pentecostal preacher also suggested that the COVID-19 vaccine would help lay the ground for the coming of the Antichrist, according to the Daily Bulletin.
Anthony Fauci, MD, who received a Jesuit education, has addressed houses of worship recently about the COVID-19 vaccines, including Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston and interfaith leaders during a Facts & Faith Friday webinar this month hosted by Virginia’s Department of Health Office of Health Equity.
“We’ve worked really hard in the vaccine trial to do the kind of community outreach to the African American community and actually worked through their churches to try to convince people that it’s in their own best interests to be part of this,” Collins said. “The Moderna trial ended up with 37% of the participants being people of color, which is a pretty significant achievement.”