Churches as venues for COVID vaccinations — ‘They ultimately trust the pastor’

Bethel AME Church in Tallahassee, pictured on Feb. 6, 2021, has helped distribute COVID vaccines. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix

When yellow fever struck Philadelphia in 1973, killing 10 percent of the city’s 50,000 people, the congregation of the newly founded Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church cared for the sick and buried the dead at great risk to their own lives.

Julius McAllister Jr., pastor today of “Mother Bethel’s” namesake church in Tallahassee, points to that legacy in the context of our own COVID-19 outbreak.

When the state Division of Emergency Management and Department of Health called seeking his help in mitigating COVID-19, he said, the decision was easy.

“Of course, without hesitation or any reservation, I immediately said yes,” McAllister said in a telephone phone interview last week.

Julius Mc Allister Jr. of Bethel AME Church in Tallahassee. Source: Facebook

His church became one of the first to participate in a DeSantis administration program steering COVID vaccines into the community through houses of worship — not least minority communities that have had trouble gaining access to the newly available Pfizer and Moderna products.

The need is great.

Department of Health data show that 97,563 Black Floridians have been vaccinated, out of nearly 2 million doses administered, as of Feb. 6. Blacks represent 16 percent of Florida’s 21.5 million people, according to U.S. Census figures, but only 4.99 percent of those who have gotten the shots statewide.

Blacks tend not to trust the medical establishment, not least because of the Tuskegee experiment, in which the federal Public Health Service let syphilis go untreated in Black men for decades to study the disease’s progression, without informed consent.

Still, DeSantis has expressed hope that trusted pastors would encourage their flocks to take the shot.

“There’s a lot of demand for the vaccine, but there’s still some folks that aren’t sure that they want to take it,” DeSantis said while opening a vaccination site in partnership with Pensacola’s Olive Baptist Church on Jan. 6.

“When you have community leaders stepping up, showing that they’re doing it — a pastor, someone that people trust — I think that does make a positive difference,” he said.

McAllister most definitely concurs.

“When people ultimately trust the church, they ultimately trust the pastor. If you trust the person with your spiritual life, I’m almost certain that you will trust the pastor with your physical life,” he said.

In Florida, vaccines are available to people aged 65 and up through hospitals, county health clinics, and at Publix pharmacies, which DeSantis has said he considered a convenient venue in counties with lots of seniors but lacking major medical centers.

The governor sent 500 doses to the predominantly Black Lake Okeechobee community of Pahokee recently, too.

Additionally, the Biden administration plans to send vaccines directly to pharmacies in the states beginning this week, with the emphasis on underserved communities, according to a White House statement.

In Miami-Dade, the Jackson Health System has reduced its racial disparity on vaccines by enlisting community groups to recruit Blacks to take the shots, the Miami Herald reported recently. The Tampa Bay Times reported last week that African American pastors sought a more robust vaccination outreach to their community.

The state agencies overseeing vaccine roll-out have administered — or plan to administer by the end of this week — doses through 53 houses of worship of myriad denominations. AME congregations are well represented, but not all of the congregations directly serve African American communities.

They include Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Aventura in Miami-Dade County, where an ecumenical program also involves a Christian and a Muslim congregation; La Roca Firme Comunidad Crist, a Spanish-language congregation in Hialeah; and All Angels Episcopal, which offers English- and Spanish-language services in Miami Springs; and the bilingual St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Kissimmee.

In all cases, vaccination was by appointment only, meaning patients avoided long waits.

Pastor Ted Traylor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, speaking as a church-related COVID vaccine drive opened on Jan. 6, 2021. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Olive Baptist is a predominantly white congregation, pastor Ted Traylor said in a phone interview (although Sunday morning is becoming less the most segregated time of the week than in the past — his congregation is mostly white, but the leadership includes Hispanics and Blacks, and Spanish- and Russian-speaking congregations meet on its campus, he said).

The site administered 1,000, 1,000, and 800 doses on each of three days in early January. Administration of the booster shots was underway when the Phoenix spoke with Traylor on Friday. Another round of first doses was set for administration this week, he said.

Janice Minnis, an administrative assistant, helped organize the vaccination drive at Koinonia Worship Center in Hollywood. The pastor, Eric Jones, is father to Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones, who helped the project happen.

The church volunteered its grounds to administer the two doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Jan. 10 and Jan. 31, Minnis said. The state provided the personnel, equipment, and shots. Everything went smoothly. “I can’t tell you one complaint,” she said.

As many as 500 people attend services on any given Sunday but only 105 are age-qualified to receive the vaccine. The rest went to a diverse slice of the community. “As far north as West Palm, as far south as Homestead,” Minnis said.

“If they hear about you, they bombard you. We had easily over 2,000 calls come through. We had to turn a lot of people away,” she said.

“A lot of African Americans did get in on it, but they were not the bulk of the 500.”

No need for the hard sell. “The senior community is desperate. They are looking to get that vaccination,” Minnis said.

The state hasn’t contacted the church about having another go, but Minnis believes the congregation would gladly participate. It’s in the name, she said: “Koinonia” means fellowship in Greek. ”As long as it reaches out the community in a positive way, we’ve always been contacted for that type of work.”

To Minnis, using churches makes sense.

“If they reach out to the religious organizations, I think they’ll get a lot more help, and we won’t look at these people standing in long lines, just being turned away, some of them. We’re there; we just need to know that they need us.”

Bethel, in Tallahassee, administered 700 first doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in early January and planned to wrap up the second round on Sunday. McAllister estimates that 97 percent of the doses went to Black people, including parishioners, but people traveled from as far away as Vernon, 100 miles to the west.

The process ran like clockwork and no one had a negative reaction, he said.

“They are seeing persons from all walks of life within the African American community participating in this ministry experience,” McAllister said.

“People see the leadership of our church participating. They know, at the same time, that if we do not have access to the vaccine, ultimately it is an invitation to death.”

McAllister said he understood the racial disparity in vaccine access but seemed astonished when a Phoenix reporter gave him the percentage.

“Wow,” he said. “When you think about that number, you know that we have not had access to the vaccine. It is my sincere hope that our community will begin to see vaccine so that we can ultimately move forward and enjoy life the way it used to be before the pandemic.”

Still, he expressed optimism, given the change in administration in Washington.

“We walk by faith, and also common sense. The two come together, they merge so that we can make common-sense decisions about a path forward.”

“In order to survive, in order to move beyond this point, we have to have equitable access for persons of all races.”