Most Unitarian Universalists are strong believers in science, medicine, and epidemiology. Even if we fear needles, most of us have overcome our fears to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible. However, some Unitarian Universalists, and staff of UU congregations, have personal values or fears that lead away from choosing vaccination. How can we as congregations who want to minimize the spread of this potentially deadly disease encourage, or even require, vaccination against COVID-19?
Focus on Positive Encouragement
Unitarian Universalists have a strong theology of interdependence and commitment to the common good. In our communications and in our worship services, we can draw connections between our core religious values and the imperative of vaccination against COVID-19.
Some other ways to encourage vaccination:
- Helping people navigate the complexities of vaccine sign-up systems and find open appointments—many of our congregations helped older members do this when vaccinations became available for ages 60+.
- Celebrating vaccinations for particular people or age groups in Joys and Sorrows.
- Hosting vaccination events and publicizing local vaccination events.
- Show this amazing video modeling how the mRNA vaccines work
- Celebrate Dr. Katalin Karikó’s idea of using mRNA for vaccination and her persistence in pursuing this possibility leading to the Pfizer vaccine.
- Celebrate Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett’s six years of work on a coronavirus vaccine and her role in creating the Moderna vaccine. She’s 34 and a Black American scientist.
- Share news about boosters, the complexity of immunity and the reasons for boosters. Many people don't know, for instance, that the booster shot not only increases antibodies, but also increases the "breadth" of antibodies as b-cells differentiate in the germinal centers to target more versions of the virus.
Offer to Support People
Some people have had difficulty getting vaccinations because of access: they can’t take time off work if they get side effects, they don’t have a ride, or they don’t have someone to watch their kids. Pair encouragement to get vaccinated with the offer of concrete support for anyone, member or friend, who needs help.
Call Out Misinformation Without Denigrating Believers
The misinformation that surrounds us about vaccines is not only designed to erode confidence in medicine. It is big business for those spreading misinformation and for the social media platforms they use.
- According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, vaccine misinformation and the anti-vaccination industry earns social media (PDF) companies $1.1 billion a year. They haven’t had any incentive to remove the sources of this misinformation.
- The Center for Countering Digital Hate has found that only 12 people produce 65% of the vaccine misinformation online and many of them are making a substantial profit from spreading known lies about COVID-19 and vaccination.
Approaching Vaccination Concerns
Remember that being hesitant about the vaccine is not the same as being against vaccination. Listening closely for the reasons someone is hesitant is crucial. Epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina provides this overview of typical vaccine concerns and presents more effective ways to respond to those concerns. She also maintains this fact sheet correcting common misconceptions (PNG).
All congregations can encourage vaccination both with individuals and in communications to the whole congregation. Whether encouraging vaccination or requiring vaccines, our approach needs to be sensitive and compassionate to the concerns some people have with getting vaccinated.
Some people who have medical conditions may have concerns that are difficult for people with the privilege of being relatively healthy to understand. Even people who are at more risk of severe disease from COVID-19 may make their vaccine decisions hesitantly and carefully. When one opens the CDC website to research whether or not to get vaccinated, reading “limited safety data” under their condition on the CDC website raises anxiety and doesn’t help. The concerns people bring to these decisions arise often from complex overlapping medical conditions where finding answers to concerns is hard.
Compassion, respect, and listening are key. Making this decision in the middle of a life-threatening pandemic isn’t easy and pressure from one’s religious community doesn’t help.
Do ask if they’re getting the medical advice they need from people they trust and if they need help finding a doctor to help them. If they’re not getting the information they need, and want your help, reach out to medical professionals in your congregation who can help find reliable sources for their condition.
The CDC currently recommends that only those who are allergic to components of the vaccine not get vaccinated, but other people with particularly complex medical conditions and medication have been advised by their doctors not to get vaccinated yet.
If your congregation requires vaccines for anyone, do create a private, sensitive, and compassionate process for people to request a medical exemption.
Distrust Rooted in Systemic Oppression
Our country has a horrifying history of medical mistreatment, experimentation, and abuse of Indigenous people, Black people, other People of Color, and people with disabilities.
Racism continues to play a significant role in the medical care that BIPOC people receive (and don’t receive) and the ways health professionals do, or do not, respond to their concerns. Regarding COVID, people of the many different cultures that fall under the umbrella “BIPOC” have a variety of cultural orientations to vaccines, with some cultural/ethnic groups having some of the highest vaccination rates in the US and some having some of the lowest. (Noting that vaccination rates are not just cultural—they are also affected by structural racism.) White people and BIPOC who hold privilege may not be best-suited to help a marginalized vaccine-hesitant person decide to vaccinate. Community groups like the Black Nurses Association are doing excellent outreach that we can support.
Compassion and willingness to listen is vital.
- Learn about the historical connection between anti-vaccination movements and racism.
- Seek to understand why younger Black Americans aren’t getting vaccinated at high rates.
- Consider this advice from Your Local Epidemiologist carefully before you respond.
We know vaccination is how we end this pandemic and care for each other. Each congregation will handle this in a different way. Unless prohibited by state law or local ordinance specific to COVID-19, congregations can require vaccinations for staff, volunteers, or for attendance at events.
Congregations holding in-person events should clearly communicate their vaccination policies to friends, members, and visitors, along with information on how to seek a medical exemption from the policies.
Vaccination does not mean removing masks. Vaccinated people are less likely to become infected and less likely to spread COVID. But as vaccinated people can spread COVID, masks are still an important layer of safety regardless of vaccination status.
Accommodations and Inclusion
If vaccinations are required for staff there must be a medical exemption process in place. A similar process should be in place if members or attendees for events are required to be vaccinated.
Accommodations can be part of a medical exemption process. This could include accommodations such as volunteering in a different capacity.
Since all people cannot be vaccinated yet (or will not be able to be vaccinated), we urge congregations to plan ways to include everyone in the life of the congregation.
- CDC information on COVID-19 vaccines for people with underlying medical conditions.
- The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center is an excellent source of information for all vaccines.
- Practice talking to someone fearful of getting the vaccine with this chatbot simulation, How to Talk to Someone Fearful of Getting the Vaccine, from the New York Times.
- Vaccine Hesitant, How Can You Help? By “Your Local Epidemiologist” Katelyn Jetelina.
- Vaccine Persuasion from the New York Times.
- They Haven’t Gotten a Covid Vaccine Yet. But They Aren’t ‘Hesitant’ Either, from The New York Times.