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Local Religious Leaders Make Encouraging, Supporting COVID-19 Vaccine Push a Priority

File Photo by Derek Redd James Conley sits and receives his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine during Ohio County’s clinic at The Highlands.

WHEELING — Though the words of their prayers may be different, local faith leaders speak with one voice when it comes to supporting the effort to get their congregants and friends vaccinated.

The Most Rev. Bishop Mark Brennan, the Rev. Darrell Cummings, and Rabbi Joshua Lief each weighed in on their roles in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, each saying that they felt the weight of their role as community leaders.

Last week, both Gov. Jim Justice and Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus response coordinator, both called upon faith leaders throughout West Virginia to join the call of getting more people vaccinated.

“Certainly we would never want people to move against their faith and there’s different people with different perspectives, which we certainly will absolutely respect,” Marsh said during last Monday’s pandemic briefing. “But certainly these leaders of these congregations are so important to promote the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines that we have seen all of our country and our state, we’ve seen the numbers of older West Virginians who have been vaccinated dying at a much lower frequency.”

Brennan, Bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, said the Catholic doctrine calls its leaders to lead by example, and that Jesus’ teachings call for a love of not just the neighbor and community, but the self.

“He did give a commandment to love your neighbor, but it doesn’t stop there — love your neighbor as yourself,” Brennan said. “There is a proper love of self — getting enough sleep, being careful about the food we eat. … As Saint Paul said, you need to discipline yourself so you can run the race.

“In this case, the proper love of self is the vaccine. … The proper love of self is to get the vaccine for your own protection, and to impede transmission to others; that’s love of neighbor. There’s both parts of that to fulfill.”

Brennan pointed out that older individuals, over 65, are widely accepting the vaccine — “That’s a testimony to the good sense of our older people,” he said — while recent trends in COVID-19 cases are among younger individuals, who should now be the focus of vaccination efforts.

“I’m in the age group where, earlier on I got vaccinated, the second one was in February,” Brennan said. “… It’s all we can do to encourage people, for their own good and for the good of others, to get vaccinated.”

Lief, representing Temple Shalom, agreed that it was a religious duty to encourage vaccination efforts. He said it was the temple’s goal to direct people to protect themselves and others, and to bring society out of the pandemic as soon as possible.

“Our Jewish values direct us to try and protect not only ourselves, but our neighbors, and the stranger. If we can do so by wearing a mask, washing out hands, we’ve been encouraging that from the beginning, and now that there is a vaccine, we’re supportive of those efforts.”

Lief, who is a member of the board of Wheeling Health Right, said he was extraordinarily proud of their efforts in combating the pandemic, and their partnership with the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department and Wheeling Hospital.

“The efforts that we make have to be geared toward not only our own self interest, but truly the health and safety of our entire community. Things that are good for everyone are also good for us.” Lief said.

“Our Jewish values certainly direct us in that way; our faith is empty unless we put it into action. On this matter, even if it’s not as effective as we wish, … anything we can do that protects others, keeps us from transmitting the disease, is as worthwhile as keeping ourselves happy and safe. I’ve always believed we’re all in this together. The pandemic has made it very clear that we’re all in this together.”

Cummings, lead pastor at the Bethlehem Apostolic Temple in North Wheeling, sees his role as an informational one, rather than to encourage his listeners to get the vaccine. While Cummings said he had already received his shots, he understood people’s hesitance.

“My role is to inform them of the opportunities to get the vaccine; I don’t think it’s my responsibility to try to make them do it,” Cummings said. “I can encourage them, I can lead them, but I can’t drive them. Although I’ve been blessed and happy to get the vaccine, and have encouraged my family to do the same, and publicly, through the pulpit, encouraged those who want to do it, to do it, through social media, to show not only did I say it, but I got it.”

Cummings said he especially understood an unwillingness to receive the vaccine in the Black community, which he said recalled memories of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, an unethical study conducted over 40 years by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control on an African-American community in Alabama.

During this study, nearly 400 men were unwittingly used to test the long-term effects of untreated syphilis, while being falsely promised health care. The study began in 1932 and was set to run for six months, but ultimately continued until 1972.

“I must understand the hesitancy, from the background of our culture. I know what happened at Tuskegee. I know how they feel they were tricked; I’ve tried to express that I don’t think these are the same times, and I’m thinking this is not the same thing,” Cummings continued. “But I cannot deny the history, and history doesn’t look in our favor.”

Cummings also said he understands the reluctance to get the vaccine as a few people — six cases out of around 6.8 million — have suffered rare but severe blood clots after receiving the Johnson and Johnson one-dose vaccine. Use of the vaccine in the United States was put on pause this week while a study is conducted on if the clots and the vaccine are linked.

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