Health experts, faith leaders and White House target the ‘movable’ on vaccines

‘We would not be where we are without your help and we won’t be able to cross the finish line without you,’ said White House official Melissa Rogers.

The Faiths 4 Vaccines online summit on Wednesday brought leaders together to talk about how to support vaccine efforts in the U.S. Screen grab from Faiths 4 Vaccines summit

(RNS) — Use your church van to deliver community members who need transportation to a COVID-19 vaccination site.

Canvass the neighborhood near your house of worship to encourage those who have not yet received a shot.

Tell people you’re vaccinated, and if you had to recover a bit from the second shot, share that too.

For three hours Wednesday (May 26), faith leaders, government officials and health experts offered their tips for houses of worship to help promote COVID-19 vaccines to the unwilling, the uninformed or unmotivated. As the Biden administration pushes to get 70% of Americans at least one shot by July 4, the online seminar suggested ways people of faith can be “vaccine ambassadors” who combat vaccine hesitancy and increase access to shots.

The online summit was hosted by Faiths 4 Vaccines, a national multifaith initiative.

RELATED: Meet the Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist encouraging her fellow Christians to get vaccinated

Hundreds of thousands of doses have already been administered at houses of worship, often helped by outlets such as Walmart. Amy Hill, senior director for public affairs for the company, said it has held vaccination clinics at a Hindu temple in California, a Hispanic Catholic congregation and mosques in Atlanta, historically Black churches in Arkansas and a Hispanic evangelical church in Las Vegas.

“Some of our most successful clinics have followed Sunday services in the afternoon,” she said.

“We would not be where we are without your help and we won’t be able to cross the finish line without you,” said Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, to those attending the webinar. 

Rogers read a letter from President Joe Biden noting his appreciation for the work of faith organizations to seek an end to the pandemic.

“You are not only saving lives; you are building lasting bonds of trust,” Biden wrote. “With your partnership and dedication, we will beat this virus, save lives and build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But Mohamed Elsanousi of Faiths 4 Vaccines and a half-dozen government representatives said more collaboration is needed as the nation has barely reached the point where half of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated

On a Zoom meeting with faith leaders on Thursday, Deirdre Schifeling, director of advocacy at the White House’s office of political outreach and strategy, said that in addition to an estimated 70% of the eligible adult population that is “vaccine ready,” faith leaders could assist with 21% of the population she called “movable”: those who have questions about the vaccine but may be swayed by trusted members of the community such as faith leaders.

The White House has asked officials in the religious community to assist it with a “month of action” starting June 4.

Mohamed Elsanousi of Faiths 4 Vaccines speaks during the online summit. He was one of several to call for collaboration to get more Americans vaccinated. Screen grab of the Faiths 4 Vaccines summit

Mohamed Elsanousi of Faiths 4 Vaccines speaks during the online summit. He was one of several to call for collaboration to get more Americans vaccinated. Screen grab of the Faiths 4 Vaccines summit

Some younger and older panelists on Wednesday acknowledged initial hesitancy about the vaccine and said it was clergy who convinced them to roll up their sleeves.

Dr. Cameron Webb, senior policy adviser to the administration for COVID-19 equity, said he wasn’t able to convince his uncle to get vaccinated, but a Missionary Baptist church in Louisiana offering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine did.

National Association of Evangelicals President Walter Kim said shifting the focus away from politicized conversation has helped evangelical leaders gain traction.

Kim said National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, known both for his deep faith and his scientific role, has been “instrumental” in his conversations with evangelicals, as was a May 17 Facebook Live discussion Kim had with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Kim was also recorded getting his second shot live on the Department of Health and Human Services’ “Trusted Voices” video series, in which he called the vaccines “a gift from God.”

“With deep conversation, with sharing stories — not shaming people but sharing stories — we can actually work together,” Kim said on Wednesday.

Collins told the summit that what he thought in the past had been an “unfortunate” conflict for some between faith and science has turned deadly.

“Now I’m afraid it may be costing lives,” he said, saying such divides are “from my perspective utterly unjustified as a scientist who’s also a committed Christian.”

Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 coordinator, said the next stage of the vaccination push is different from the period when government bodies set up drive-in centers or websites and waited for people to line up or sign up.

“We need to reach deeper into our communities and double down on meeting people where they are to make sure everyone has an easy and convenient way to get vaccinated and everyone has the facts they need and the answers to their questions because there are people who still need to have their questions answered,” Zients told the faith leaders.

The experts pressed clergy to spread the word that no one needs insurance or documentation of citizenship to get a vaccine, as well as to provide practical information about recovering from the shot.

“We have to know this information and share this information and evangelize about this information,” said Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. “After my second dose, I had 24 hours where I spent some good time with Tylenol and lots of water. We have to be able to speak to that. That was anticipated. We have to prepare people for that.”

Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, vice chair of the National Council of Churches, suggested repeating key facts in church newsletters or organizing volunteers to help set up online appointments.

“People are still dying,” said Jefferson-Snorton, the leader of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Alabama and Florida. “People are still vulnerable and at risk. And so this has to become our priority no matter what our intended journey was for this season of our life.”

Jack Jenkins contributed to this report.

RELATED: Francis Collins urges evangelicals: ‘Love your neighbor,’ get COVID-19 vaccine

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