In late April, a COVID-19 outbreak exploded at the Teen Challenge Center in Johnson with 26 cases of the virus so far, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

The drug and addiction rehabilitation center, centered around strict adherence to the Christian faith, is still considered in an active outbreak.

It’s being advised by the health department’s outbreak response team, which is providing quarantine guidance while recommending testing and isolation in certain cases.

Despite the outbreak, the center is not requesting or requiring its staff or residents to get inoculated against COVID-19.

“If somebody wants to get vaccinated, we definitely encourage that if that’s what they want to do. Right now, the state isn’t making it mandatory yet,” said Kevin Arszyla, a coordinator at the center.

Teen Challenge is far from alone among religious groups in north-central Vermont reluctant to ask followers to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Some are declining to encourage members and congregants to sign up, even while other religious groups are actively facilitating vaccinations and preaching its effectiveness.

‘An individual choice’

While some churches have had no trouble being prescriptive in the past on issues ranging from abortion to burial, many parishioners across various denominations have been left to their own devices when it comes to choosing whether to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or not.

At Trinity Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church in Hyde Park, Pastor Ron Doyle and his wife Dianne had been planning on getting vaccinated.

Just before they became eligible, they both contracted the virus.

Together, they were laid up for a month and a half.

Though they’re personally pro-vaccine, they don’t feel the need to advocate among their congregation.

“As far as vaccination for our congregation, we do feel it is an individual choice,” Dianne Doyle said. “However, just about all of our congregation has already been vaccinated or has already had the virus, so we are covered.”

The Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Morrisville has also decided to leave vaccination to the individual in alignment with the position of the broader Catholic Church.

“Essentially, the decision is left up to the person’s conscience to make on whether they choose to receive the vaccine or not. For some there may be medical reasons (immunocompromised), others may have ethical conflicts (aborted cell lines used in the research or production of vaccines) for why they choose not to be vaccinated. The Catholic Church sees the two main issues in vaccination as personal health and community health,” Father Jon Schnobrich said in an email.

Though they can’t receive certain vaccines, like the live flu vaccine, experts consider the COVID-19 vaccine generally safe for immunocompromised adults.

None of the vaccines contain fetal tissue, and the fetal cell lines used in the development of some COVID-19 vaccines are derived from decades-old fetal cells, according to Reuters.

Still, the church’s position and these concerns have all factored into congregant and former Republican House candidate Shannara Johnson’s decision not to get the vaccine. Despite the abundance of data supporting the efficacy of the vaccines, Johnson, a self-described vaccine skeptic, called them “completely untested and unproven” and that she would “rather not be a guinea pig for Pfizer.”

For even more traditional Christian groups, whether or not to get vaccinated against the coronavirus is far too material of a concern to pass judgment on at all.

“We are very slow to publish personal ideas other than we encourage all men to repent and make their calling and election sure with our heavenly Father,” said Steve Ebersole of Pilgrim Ministries, a Mennonite church in Wolcott. “Vaccine and COVID questions are for a little bit of time. Salvation is for all eternity.”

A moral compass

Among the region’s non-Christian religious groups is where the most evangelizing around vaccination can be found.

According to Imam Islam Hassan of the Islamic Society of Vermont in South Burlington, his congregants haven’t suffered a single infection during the pandemic, because of their stringent observance of health and safety protocols. They’ve also been promoting vaccination against the coronavirus since they started to become available.

“We have a lot of members who have had the vaccine, especially the elders,” he said. “We’re actually going to have our own vaccine drive on our premises very soon. We’re spreading the word to see how many people will sign up. We’re encouraging everyone to have the vaccine so we can get back to normal as soon as we can."

The Jewish Community of Greater Stowe has held virtual gatherings throughout the pandemic, but as vaccines became available, they started holding hybrid services while encouraging their members to get vaccinated. Steve Levine, the community’s president, is also a physician at Copley Hospital.

“As the vaccines have proven to be so effective, we have publicized them and rejoiced as our members have received it,” he said.

Rabbi David Fainsilber echoed, “As the vaccines have rolled out, and we begin to reopen to in person and hybrid programming, we have continuously promoted access to these effective vaccines. We see religion’s place in our society as a moral compass, helping to save lives by advancing the scientific community’s unparalleled work in getting these vaccines out to the public.”

Pockets of resistance

As of May 3, Vermont ranks first in the United States for vaccinations per 100,000 people.

But comments made during Gov. Phil Scott’s April 30 press conference by Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine indicated the state is preparing for “pockets of resistance” in the population that, for various reasons, refuse to get vaccinated.

If this refusal is based in religious belief, Vermont law will allow these groups to hold out long after the vaccine becomes required by the state in settings like public schools, as it does with other types of immunization that provide for religious exemptions.

“If you look at the experience with measles disease, we thought we almost had gotten rid of it at one point. But there were very focused groups that were resistant to getting the vaccine. Where we did see outbreaks, we saw it in those groups,” Levine said. “We didn’t see it necessarily spread widely through communities. But there were concerns and a lot of public health interventions to make sure that didn't happen.”

As more of the population gets vaccinated, Levine promised vigilance on the part of the health department in ensuring resistance to vaccination doesn’t become a widespread public health issue.

“Public health isn’t going to forget about this pandemic and lose track of it. ... we just hope it will be a very minor, minimal part. So that if anything did pop up in a specific population, we would be able to work rapidly and control it, keep it contained and make sure that the rest of the greater community was safe,” he said.

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