(RNS) – A day after President Joe Biden announced sweeping policy changes to continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most senior health officials in his administration said he was not not expected widespread use of religious exemptions to circumvent them.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, also admitted on Friday (September 10) that he was “a little” frustrated with his fellow Evangelicals who hesitated or refused to be vaccinated, even though the delta variant led to an average of over 1,000 deaths per day in the United States.
Collins said he hopes the “much more muscular demands” will make “a big difference” in reducing the number of unvaccinated Americans, noting that the country needs to vaccinate the 800,000 vaccinated daily at least five times in order to overcome the variant.
Among the new policies is an “emergency rule,” Biden said the Department of Labor will expand to require U.S. companies with 100 or more employees to either require their staff to be fully vaccinated or to require them to be fully vaccinated. show each week that they have tested negative for COVID-19.
Collins explained to Religion News Service how this rule could affect religious organizations, how the clergy can help worshipers see vaccinations, and how part of their “calling” is to encourage religious groups to work to end the pandemic. .
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
President Biden said Thursday that “this is an unvaccinated pandemic”, and you urged your evangelical colleagues to get vaccinated as “an opportunity to do something for your neighbors.” But studies have shown that white evangelicals are among the most resistant and hesitant to the COVID-19 vaccine. Does this frustrate you with your fellow believers?
Well, to be honest, that’s been a bit. But I also try to be sure to listen carefully to what the concerns are because I don’t think giving lectures is probably the best way to change people’s minds. This is strange because evangelicals generally believe strongly in this principle of neighborly love. And we know that if we’re going to end this terrible pandemic, it’s going to require all of us to commit to immunization, and the best way to do that is to get vaccinated. And by getting vaccinated, you also offer protection to those around you who depend on you to not pass this virus on to them, especially people immunocompromised by cancer or organ transplants or children under 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated.
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There have been reports of pastors with near-death experiences with COVID who changed their minds about their resistance to the vaccine at that time. Is their example what it would take for some people to roll up their sleeves?
I think each person has a somewhat different threshold for what it’s going to take. It is often someone they trust, who is ready to speak with them, to listen to concerns – most of which are fueled by conspiracies on social media that basically have no truth to them but are unsettling. if you’ve heard them a few times – and then basically get that person’s trust that the evidence really supports it. And that, for someone who is a believer, is what you might call an answer to prayer. If we have all prayed to God to somehow deliver us from this terrible pandemic, and what is happening is that these vaccines are being developed that are safe and effective, well, why wouldn’t you not say, “Thank you, God” and roll up his sleeve?
As the administration’s new announcement was made on Thursday, a senior administration official told reporters there would be “limited” exemptions for federal workers for religious reasons. Do you know what this means or could you give an example of what it could be?
I think every agency will have to figure out exactly how to interpret this. I would say if people say there’s something special about COVID-19 vaccinations that require even more religious exemptions than you would get for a flu shot, they’ll have to explain why. Somehow, COVID-19 has taken care of this big concern, this cloud of uncertainty, that it doesn’t deserve. And it’s been approved now by the FDA in full approval. If people are considering making the religious exemption, (they) will really need to make a coherent argument as to why it applies in this place.
Religious organizations that have over 100 employees – I imagine they should generally follow that mandate and get people vaccinated or have a negative COVID test weekly. Could an organization like this benefit from a blanket exemption for all of its employees?
I would be hard pressed to imagine how this could be justified, given the importance of protecting everyone from this. And to do this roughly, it would be hard for me to figure out how that would apply. What would be the basis for this? I can’t really find a good example of how this fits.
For months, you and other members of the administration have spoken of religious leaders from various perspectives as “trusted partners” in efforts to get people vaccinated against COVID-19. Has that approach changed or do you think these efforts have not worked as well as you had hoped?
Oh, I think they worked in many individual circumstances. I think the religious leaders have been in a difficult situation. And some of them, even though they personally came to the idea that the vaccine is something they want for themselves and their families, they have been reluctant to bring it up among their parishioners because of the fear that it might divide. I hope we have now reached the point where the evidence is so strong – where we see people dying around us – that these religious leaders will decide it is worth the risk of being pushed back. Basically, gentlemen, let’s look at the truth. The truth will set you free.
And what role in general, other than what you’ve said, do you see ahead of you for the involvement of religious leaders, with the new rules that the president announced?
Well, they will no doubt be asked if this is a violation of personal freedom. And I hope the pastors who are listening to this will listen carefully, but also remind us as Americans that freedom is about rights but also about responsibilities. I cherish my freedom as an American. I am proud of my country. But I know I’m not free to go out and get drunk and get behind the wheel of a car. There are limits here, in terms of what that freedom entails and those responsibilities, for a pandemic, sort of the kickoff, and they’ve had it for decades. Go back to when we had smallpox killing people all over the country over 100 years ago, or polio. When you have these circumstances where it is not just one person, but the whole community, then we all have a shared responsibility. And I hope pastors will feel comfortable reminding people of this, and Christians especially should hear the echo, since we are all known for our ability to reach out, our determination to take risks for help others. Here is a chance to do just that.
Coming back to the question of evangelicals and hesitation, or resistance. Are there any misconceptions about white evangelicals and the COVID vaccine and changes, perhaps, in their attitudes about them that people might not realize?
Now, it’s sure a mistake to try to imagine that white evangelicals are this very homogeneous bunch. There are many different people who fit this particular description of a religious tradition. I’m one of them, but I’m probably a little different from someone you might meet in a typical white Mississippi evangelical church. But I think what we share as believers is this commitment as disciples of Jesus that we want to share this good news with other people. And here’s a chance to share the good news in a different way. I don’t know if it would be right, however, for me to try to generalize whether the white evangelicals, as a group, have come. Some certainly have. Some are still quite resistant.
Do you still continue to speak to church groups like you did from the National Cathedral to webinars with evangelicals, or is that part of your work more comprehensive?
No, I am ready to speak to any religious group anytime about this. It’s part of my calling, I guess, as a scientist who’s also a believer. So I would love to find opportunities to do this any day, every day.
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