More than a third of Americans reported they were unlikely or unsure whether to get a COVID-19 vaccine in a study published earlier in 2021 by the journal Vaccine.
AdventHealth is working to reduce this number by taking vaccines directly to the heart of many communities — the local church. Houses of worship of various faiths are held in special regard by millions of American believers. For many, the church is where families celebrate meaningful milestones like weddings, baby dedications, baptisms, and more. It’s where generations gather together (even virtually, as the pandemic has shown) for encouragement in the toughest of times.
“The church is the place that many people trust,” Ted Hamilton, chief mission integration officer for AdventHealth, said. “Generations trust the church, and generations attend the same church — grandparents, parents, and children. It’s where they go to be together and to be comforted. Churches make a wonderful social vehicle for the delivery of important messages.”
In Leawood, Kansas, AdventHealth Shawnee Mission is teaming up with the Church of the Resurrection to vaccinate seniors every week through May. The large United Methodist church has seating for up to 3,500 attendees. During the first COVID-19 vaccine event hosted by AdventHealth, about 2,000 seniors aged 65 and over got their shot.
“We are grateful to be a resource to the community and assist our local health officials with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine,” Sam Huenergardt, chief executive officer for AdventHealth’s Mid-America Region, said. “Church of the Resurrection is a wonderful partner, and we appreciate the opportunity to join together in service to the community — working toward the shared goal of overcoming the virus and reinvigorating hope.”
While vaccine hesitancy is an issue across the American population, the numbers are higher among people of color.
As of March 31, 2021, AdventHealth has surveyed 195,000 people on their vaccine readiness. In the survey data on race/ethnicity demographics, 70 percent of Black participants reported a positive likelihood of getting a vaccine, compared to 77 percent of white participants. The data show an upward trend in vaccine readiness across race/ethnicity since October 2020, but a gap still exists.
Vaccine hesitancy, fueled by historical and modern-day examples of medical bias and harm suffered by Black people — coupled with issues of access to the vaccines — is slowing the vaccination rate among the Black population.
“The challenge with minority groups is that there’s a great level of distrust with the medical establishment. We understand the fears and the hesitancy of why people would be skeptical about this vaccination,” Alric Simmonds, AdventHealth’s chief health equity officer, said. “We have formed a vaccine hesitancy subcommittee as part of our vaccine task force, and we’re now looking at how we can partner with churches, fraternities, sororities, and the like to see if we can get vaccines into those communities.”
One of the churches AdventHealth has partnered with to help get vaccines to these communities of color is the historically Black Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Zephyrhills, Florida. AdventHealth Zephyrhills vaccinated congregants aged 65 and over during an event in February. Geneva Bourne was one of those congregants.
“I’ve had friends who’ve been impacted by [COVID], and that’s one of the reasons I’m here today, to make sure I don’t get it,” she said. “I think we need to bring the vaccine into our neighborhoods, bring it to the people, and educate them on what it’s about, and then they’ll be able to get it.”
Also in west Florida, AdventHealth North Pinellas partnered with the historically Black Mt. Hermon Missionary Baptist Church for an event in Tarpon Springs.
In Fletcher, North Carolina, AdventHealth Hendersonville hosted a clinic at the historically Black Greater New Zion Baptist Church, which has been in the community since 1927. This event took place on Martin Luther King Day, making it especially meaningful to church leaders and members.
“It means the world to us, the church, and our community,” Greater New Zion’s bishop, Lionel Smith, said. “I understand, and most of us understand, the history of what has taken place within our community and our people. Many are reluctant to take the vaccine, so I am ecstatic to be the first one and set an example for my church and my community as well.”
AdventHealth Hendersonville also hosted a small clinic at the Biltmore Church en Español campus in Asheville, North Carolina. Biltmore Church is a multi-site church, with the en Español campus one of seven in the region.
As vaccine eligibility expands, AdventHealth Hendersonville and its sister facilities across the United States hope to continue to work with local clergy to set up clinics in local churches.
“Pastors of churches hold a position of respect and esteem that’s right up there with doctors and nurses,” Hamilton said. “I think the circles can overlap more for the good of the community.”