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Mohammed Junaid receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Heidi Enger, a nurse with the Salt Lake County Health Department, during a vaccination event at the Khadeeja Islamic Center and Mosque in West Valley City on March 26, 2021.

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Is faith the key to herd immunity?

New research shows that faith-based initiatives could boost vaccination rates among not just the religious but all Americans

Mohammed Junaid receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Heidi Enger, a nurse with the Salt Lake County Health Department, during a vaccination event at the Khadeeja Islamic Center and Mosque in West Valley City on March 26, 2021.
| Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Faith-based outreach could be the key to helping many Americans, including some who don’t attend a house of worship, overcome their hesitancy about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new study from Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core.

The research showed that a range of vaccine hesitant people, from white evangelicals to young Americans to conspiracy theorists, said they would respond well to religious interventions, such as words of encouragement from a faith leader.

“America’s religious leaders and congregations can be a powerful tool for persuading a broad range of vaccine hesitant Americans to get vaccinated,” said Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., during the webinar that launched the report.

With over 5,000 respondents, the new survey is the largest study to date that specifically examines possible faith-based interventions to address vaccine hesitancy. It also looks at which religious groups are currently the least likely to sign up for a shot.

“We do not get to herd immunity without dealing with faith identity,” said Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, during the webinar. “Religious engagement is key to ending the virus. There are significant segments of the American community whose attitude to the vaccine is inextricably tied to their religious identity.”

When the survey was conducted in March, 58% of respondents said they either had or would get a vaccine as soon as possible. Twenty-eight percent were “vaccine hesitant,” answering either that they would wait and see or that they would only get vaccinated if they were required to. The 14% who remained — the “vaccine refuser” category — are those who said they would not get a vaccine.

Among faith groups, Jewish Americans had the highest rates of vaccine acceptance at 85%. They were followed by white Catholics (68%) and white mainline Protestants (63%).

Black Protestants, Hispanic Protestants and white evangelical Protestants are on the other side of the acceptance-refusal spectrum. More than half of members of each group are either hesitant to get the vaccine or refuse to do so.

For Black protestants and white evangelical Protestants, church attendance plays a role in whether or not one is willing to get a vaccine — though the effects are opposite for the two groups.

Black protestants who attend services are more likely to accept vaccination: 57% of those who attend church say they have or would take the vaccine as opposed to 41% who don’t go to church.

Among white evangelicals, however, 48% of those who do not attend services are vaccine acceptors. The number drops 5 percentage points to 43% for those who do go to church.

Religious belief and church attendance are far from the only factors that affect vaccine acceptance, according to researchers. The survey also uncovered a strong correlation between an embrace of conspiracy theories and vaccine refusal.

While only 4% of those who “completely disagree” with QAnon — or the web of wide-ranging conspiracy theories propagated by an anonymous figure who goes by the name of “Q” — said they would refuse the vaccine, 41% of those who “generally agree with QAnon theories” said they would not get vaccinated.

But it appears that most Americans, whether or not they attend church and regardless of where they stand on QAnon, are receptive to faith-based outreach efforts. The vaccine hesitant are particularly receptive to hearing from religious leaders, researchers said.

When survey respondents were asked about six different faith-based initiatives to encourage vaccination, the actions that were most likely to tip their answer from hesitation or refusal to vaccine acceptance were encouragement from a religious leader, that a religious leader got vaccinated or discussion of the vaccine in a forum with one’s religious community.

“Religious leaders can be a source of trusted information for vaccine hesitant religious groups,” Jones noted.

Jones added that, when all of the six faith-based initiatives were presented to respondents, “26% of vaccine hesitant Americans say that one or more of these faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get the vaccine.” The impact was even stronger among those who attend religious services with 44% of those who are vaccine hesitant reporting that they would be more likely to get a vaccine and 14% of refusers saying the same.

Approximately 4 out of 10 of white evangelicals who are hesitant to get vaccinated say the faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get vaccinated. That figure jumps to 47% among those who attend services on a regular basis, Jones noted.

“Even among younger Americans who are less likely to be attached to churches — 25% say they would be more likely to get the vaccine if one or more of these faith-based approaches were at play,” he added.

Faith-based approaches would also be effective with QAnon believers, with 36% reporting they’d be more likely to be vaccinated due to one of these faith-based initiatives, the survey showed.

Overall, the study makes it clear that “person-to-person faith-based approaches are effective at encouraging” vaccine acceptance, Patel said.

In light of this finding, communities across the nation may want to not only expand faith-based vaccination sites, but also hire “some form of health care care ambassador that deals directly with faith,” he said.

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