With about a third of the US vaccinable population still not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, public health officials have called on trusted community voices to address hesitation, suspicion and misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine.
Keith Thomas took this message to heart. He is a pastor at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Champaign, Illinois, and also works as a chaplain at a nearby hospital.
He said his experience at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic fueled efforts to promote safety measures – including wearing masks, testing, and the vaccine – because he saw too many families lose loved ones to the virus .
The toughest scenarios involved elderly people who contracted COVID-19 in a younger family member who was not vaccinated and did not take pandemic precautions seriously.
“You were okay with [COVID] as a younger person but did not think about the effects of an older person’s health, ”he said. “I’ve seen more than a few die as a result of this scenario.”
Recently, Thomas has focused on improving access to testing and increasing vaccination rates among black people in his community. Following national trends, vaccination rates among black and Hispanic residents in Champaign County have consistently lagged those of white residents.
But nationwide, this gap has narrowed in recent months, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Recently, Hispanics and Blacks have had a greater proportion of vaccinations compared to their proportion of the population.
Local health officials in Champaign County have said the increase in vaccine adoption among black residents is due to the efforts of trusted community voices like Thomas.
When the coronavirus stalled everything – including church meetings – in the spring of 2020, Thomas said it was very strange to have to tell people to stop coming to church.
At that moment, he decided to take measures to prevent the virus from spreading.
“[It was] It’s up to me to do things to help, ”said Thomas. “It was just on my heart and weighed heavily.”
Thomas initially worked with church members and local health officials to make coronavirus testing more accessible to Black and Brown residents and the elderly in his community. The church coordinated drive-through Covid testing events in its parking lot.
Thomas also participated in a messaging campaign to encourage the wearing of masks and other public health measures.
As the introduction of the vaccine began, Thomas spoke with Illinois Director of Health Dr. Ngozi Ezike, in a virtual town hall to provide reliable information and to dispel suspicion and misinformation about the vaccine. The church has also hosted vaccination clinics.
“What we have to do is simply share, and boldly, what the facts are,” said Thomas. “We don’t want to argue with anyone; Just tell the facts and let one person make the judgments. “
Unvaccinated people continue to make up the vast majority of COVID-19 hospital admissions and deaths in the United States
Thomas said he believes God gave people the science and vaccines to help end this pandemic.
“We need to move wisely during this pandemic,” he said. “I was very careful to say that when the facts are presented to you, wisdom will tell you how to react in faith.”
When Thomas meets people who say that their trust in God makes them feel they don’t need the vaccine, he has prepared a message to share with them.
“I’m very clear,” he said. “I say to this person, ‘If you can trust God without a vaccine, you can definitely trust God with a vaccine. The same power exists with or without a vaccine. Only your trust stands in your way. ‘”
This story was produced by WFYI’s Side Effects Public Media, a news collaboration dealing with public health.