With roughly a third of the vaccine-eligible population in the U.S. still not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, public health officials have been calling on trusted community voices to address hesitancy, mistrust and misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine.
Keith Thomas has taken that message to heart. He’s a pastor at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Champaign, Illinois, and also works as a chaplain at a nearby hospital.
He said his experience on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic have fueled his efforts to promote safety measures — including mask-wearing, testing and the vaccine — because he’s seen too many families lose loved ones to the virus.
The toughest scenarios have involved elderly people who contracted COVID-19 from a younger family member who wasn’t vaccinated and didn’t take pandemic precautions seriously.
“They were fine with [COVID] as a younger person, but didn’t think about the repercussions of the health conditions of someone that’s older,” he said. “I’ve seen more than a few that have died because of that scenario.”
Lately, Thomas has been focused on increasing access to testing and boosting vaccination rates among people of color in his community. Following national trends, vaccination rates among Black and Hispanic residents in Champaign County have consistently lagged behind those of White residents.
But nationwide, that gap has narrowed in recent months, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Lately, Hispanic and Black people have accounted for a larger share of vaccinations compared to their share of the population.
Local health officials in Champaign County have said the uptick in vaccine acceptance among residents of color is thanks to the efforts by trusted community voices, like Thomas.
When the coronavirus brought everything — including church gatherings — to a halt in the spring of 2020, Thomas said it was very strange having to tell people to stop coming to church.
At that moment, he decided to take action to prevent the spread of the virus.
“[It was] incumbent upon me to do things to help,” Thomas said. “It just was on my heart and weighed heavy.”
Thomas started by working alongside church members and local health officials to make coronavirus testing more accessible to Black and Brown residents and the elderly in his community. The church coordinated drive-through COVID testing events in its parking lot.
Thomas also participated in a messaging campaign to promote mask-wearing and other public health mitigations.
When the vaccine rollout began, Thomas spoke at a virtual town hall, alongside Illinois’ public health director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, to provide reliable information and address mistrust and misinformation about the vaccine. The church has also hosted vaccination clinics.
“What we have to do is just share, and share boldly, what the facts are,” Thomas said. “We don’t want to argue with anyone; just state the facts and let a person make the judgments.”
Thomas said he believes God has given people science and the vaccines to help bring this pandemic to an end.
“We have to move wisely throughout this pandemic,” he said. “I’ve been very adamant about saying that wisdom will tell you how to respond in faith when the facts are presented before you.”
When Thomas meets people who say their trust in God makes them feel they don’t need the vaccine, he has a message prepared to share with them.
“I’m very clear,” he said. “I say to that person, ‘If you can trust God, without a vaccine, you can definitely trust God with a vaccine. The same power exists with or without a vaccine. It’s just your trust that’s in the way.’”
This story was produced by WFYI’s Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.