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Allegheny County Religious Leaders Help Build Faith In The COVID-19 Vaccine

Abdeljalil Bounhar

Pennsylvania health officials called upon religious leaders this week to help more state residents get vaccinated against COVID-19. Many faithful in Allegheny County have already taken up that mission.

The Allegheny County Health Department announced earlier this week it would run a vaccine clinic at Central Baptist Church in the city’s Hill District starting March 22. The county said Duquesne University’s Center for Integrative Health will help offer limited vaccinations at the church, targeting communities that have not yet been reached by other vaccination clinics.

Ingomar United Methodist Church in the North Hills is hosting a clinic for parishioners and community members Friday. Integrated Health 21, a North-side based health management company will administer 150 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine inside the church gym.

Integrated Health 21 is also working with St. Jude parishioners to provide vaccinations at a clinic at St. Raphael Church in Highland Park Saturday.

The limited supply of shots for the Ingomar clinic was first offered to the church’s oldest phase 1A members, according to Rev. Greg Cox, senior pastor at Ingomar United Methodist. But when there were doses left over, the church decided to offer shots to community members.

“The church has a great opportunity to be partners with their community to provide access to [these] resources,” Cox said.

The church will host a second-dose clinic within the recommended timeframe for those who get their first dose Friday. But as for future first-dose clinics, Cox is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We’re hopeful,” he said. But if a future clinic can’t offer a higher volume of shots, the church will consider how it can better serve other vaccine-related needs. Ingomar United Methodist has previously offered its administrative staff to church members as a resource for booking appointments.

“If anyone was having trouble navigating through the ocean of information related to receiving a vaccine … we have a hospitality coordinator who was working alongside an associate pastor to share information” with church members over the phone, he said.

The need for that assistance underscores accessibility issues with the vaccine rollout. Health officials say another issue has been vaccine hesitancy. Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said this week the state will rely, in part, on religious leaders to help people feel more comfortable getting their shots.

Rev. Dr. B. De Neice Welch, senior pastor of Bidwell Presbyterian Church in the North Side, said she initially decided against getting vaccinated. Citing the history of suspicion against the health care system among Black Americans, Bidwell said many Black citizens are hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccines.

“We as a community could not trust the information coming from our national elected officials, nor did we trust the information circulating in the streets,” Welch said at a press conference with the Pennsylvania Department of Health this week. 

Bidwell leaders consulted with a church member who works as a physician and studied health department data. That led Welch to change her mind. She said it was important to her to serve as an example to her congregation. She has since received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

So far, about 40% of Bidwell’s congregation has gotten a shot, according to Welch. She has encouraged her congregants to get their shot when they become eligible.

As more Pennsylvanians get vaccinated, many religious groups have begun anticipating a return to more frequent gatherings. Rev. Cox noted this week marks one year since his congregation last gathered together in person.

“[It] was the first time in our history that we did not meet as a congregation for anything other than snow,” Cox said. “It’s been a long year.”

Religious organizations have helped their communities gain access to health resources since the pandemic first reached Allegheny County. “The church has always been a place that upholds healing for our communities,” said Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania.

Barlow said many local churches across the county have helped connect congregants to testing information and vaccine appointments.

The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh have also hosted multiple mobile COVID-19 testing clinics throughout the pandemic.

More recently, the JCC has opened its doors to host vaccine clinics with the Squirrel Hill Health Center. Rabbi Ron Symons, director of the Center for Loving Kindness at the JCC, said the center has been the site of 1,400 vaccinations so far.

The center also recruited volunteers to call patients when second dose vaccine appointments had to be rescheduled due to a lack of supply. Symons said helping to get neighbors vaccinated falls into the mission of the center that he leads.

“The JCC is for everybody,” he said. “We strengthen the fabric of community by amplifying the long held values of ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘do not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds.’ Both of those are incredibly applicable to our time now."

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
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