Churches could be a key to overcoming vaccine misinformation, resistance to perceived coercion by ‘The Man’ in Eastern Ky.

Pastor Billy Joe Lewis at his Leslie County church. (Kaiser Health News photo by Jessica Tezak)

The key to keeping Eastern Kentucky hospitals from being overwhelmed by Covid-19, the flu and other illnesses this winter may depend on rural churches helping vaccination campaigns, Sarah Varney reports for Kaiser Health News.

“In Leslie County, in the foothills of the rugged Pine Mountain ridge that anchors the state’s eastern coalfield, gravel roads wind through thick forests blanketed with kudzu vines,” Varney writes. “House by house, church by church, public health workers are trying to outsmart the fantastical tales spread on Facebook about the Covid-19 vaccines, while also helping residents overcome the everyday hurdles of financial hardship and isolation.”

Leslie County has better full-vaccination rates than most counties in southeastern Kentucky: 46% of the population and 54% of the vaccine-eligible (12 and older). Clay County, to the east, has only 39% and 45%, respectively, despite special campaigns to get shots in arms. The region matches what national polls show tend to be the most adamant anti-vaccine part of the U.S. population, citing “tends to be disproportionately white, rural, evangelical Christian and politically conservative,” The New York Times reports.

“Local health agencies have been eager to enroll churches in the all-hands-on-deck vaccination effort,” Varney reports. “Some church leaders have refrained from encouraging vaccination, afraid of offending congregants in a state where mistrust of government intrusion runs deep.”

But not Billy Joe Lewis, pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Jesus Christ on Cutshin Creek, which rises in the shadow of Pine Mountain and drains much of Leslie County.

“Lewis, who has thick silver hair and a luminous smile, spends long stretches of the day in prayer, and he says God told him to protect his flock,” Varney reports. “When ‘Sister Maxine’ from the regional health department suggested a drop-in vaccine clinic in the church parking lot, Lewis says, he was all in favor. He promoted it from the pulpit and on the church’s must-read Facebook page.”

Lewis’s sister in Christ is Maxine Shepherd, a regional health coordinator for the county and a member of his church since he started it in 1972. But his stand wasn’t a personal favor. “We’ve still got to use common sense,” he told Varney. “Anything that can ward off suffering and death, I think, is a wonderful thing.”

He has seen both. “In recent weeks, Lewis held a funeral service for a 53-year-old unvaccinated former coal miner, suspended Sunday services after more members fell ill and, with a heavy heart, canceled Homecoming — a cherished yearly gathering of area churches that marks the fall foliage with a celebration of the gospel and shared faith,” Varney writes.

Varney notes that getting people to vaccine sites in the region isn’t as easy as it is in most places, because some people lack transportation. But another big obstacle is “the specter of coercion” in a region “where government directives have been met with derision,” she reports.

“We do not like to be shoved,” Louisa nursing-home owner David McKenzie told her. “We resent it, and we shove back.”

In Lawrence County, the fully-vaccinated rates are 40% of the total and 48% of the eligible. Opposition to the vaccines there “is not overtly political so much as defiant,” Varney writes.

“They’re fearful of ‘The Man’,” McKenzie told her. “The Man could be your employer, it could be the government, it could be a newspaper reporter.”

And there’s another kind of fear, Varney reports, paraphrasing and quoting McKenzie: “People who boasted about refusing the vaccines cannot change their minds, or ‘They’ll look like they’re weak, or they caved to The Man’.”

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