Increased national resources and efforts to target white evangelicals, the group most reluctant to the COVID-19 vaccine in the country, could help end the pandemic sooner, a vaccine advocate said at a hearing of the Senate on Health, Education, Work and Pensions (HELP) Commission Tuesday.
Witnesses and lawmakers also weighed the risks and benefits of vaccinating children against COVID-19 and debated whether people with “natural immunity” still needed an injection.
In his opening statement, Sen. Richard Burr (RN.C.), a senior member of the committee, noted that vaccination rates across the country recently fell below 1 million doses per day for the first time. since January, compared to a peak of 3.3 million doses in April.
Increasing confidence in the vaccine among a particular subset of Americans could help reverse this trend, said Curtis Chang, a consultant professor at Duke Divinity School and senior researcher at Fuller Theological Seminary.
“Reaching all demographic groups in our country is important, but we will not end the pandemic unless we convince more white evangelicals to get vaccinated,” he said.
Chang, co-founder of Christians and the Vaccine – a partnership with the Ad Council, the National Association of Evangelicals and other stakeholders – noted that states with the lowest vaccination rates are closely following a map of the “biblical belt”. “Evangelicals make up about 29% of the American population.
In written testimony, he explained how, in recent years, evangelicals’ long-standing practice of “critical engagement” with secular institutions “has shifted from prudence to outright fear and hostility.”
The change has happened, at least in part, because of external forces, including the conservative media, politicians, and conspiratorial movements – such as QAnon and the anti-vaxxers – exploiting evangelicals’ already deep-rooted skepticism towards such institutions, he said.
The reason evangelicals are likely to be suspicious of the vaccine is that “trust in the vaccine” is akin to “institutional trust,” Chang added.
“Each of us only take the vaccine to the extent that we trust the FDA, CDC, drug companies and public health,” he said, but distrust of big institutions among white evangelicals is now at “an all time high.”
The good news, he continued, is that public health efforts targeting other faith communities have been successful. For example, after just a few months of such awareness among black Protestants, vaccine acceptance jumped 10 points, he noted.
In addition, a recent study by Institute for Research on Public Religion found that 44% of white evangelicals hesitant about vaccines could still be influenced by “faith-based efforts,” he added.
To that end, Chang urged lawmakers to foster partnerships between public health and evangelical religious leaders.
While the message must come from the religious leaders themselves, public health officials and experts can help by summoning these leaders and providing resources to “amplify their voices,” he said.
He called on Congress to complement the current state-based approach to building confidence in vaccines with resources for coordinated national outreach, and urged them to further channel their outreach efforts to white evangelicals.
Other witnesses, including Susan Bailey, MD, the outgoing president of the American Medical Association (AMA), spent much of the audience arguing for the rationale for vaccinating more Americans, especially with Republican senators, some of whom are doctors.
Senator Roger Marshall, MD, (R-Kan.) Asked if there is currently enough data to inform parents about the risks and benefits of immunizing children, given that the risk of COVID-19 for children under 21 is “quite low”.
Bailey confirmed that there is enough evidence to advise parents on the use of the vaccine in children.
“But I think there is a general misconception … that children are not at risk, or that the risk is so low that it is less than the risk of getting the vaccine, and it is just not true, ”she noted.
Marshall stepped in to ask if she had seen a scientific side-by-side comparison of the risks of complications from the virus versus the risk of complications from the vaccine for those under the age of 21.
Bailey did not directly assert or deny whether such a comparison was available, but said she would be happy to share the data available to WADA.
“The risks of side effects in adolescents appear to be very, very low, but we know that the risks of long-term COVID in children can be quite significant,” she said.
Natural versus vaccine Immunity
Senator Rand Paul, MD, (R-Ky.), Who also lobbied Bailey about the risks and benefits of vaccines in young people, mainly argued for the benefits of “natural immunity.”
Paul said that “dozens and dozens” of peer-reviewed articles have shown immunity against previous COVID infection to be “robust.”
He pointed out a study of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who found that mild infection leads to “long-lasting antigen-specific humoral immune memory”, as well as a study involving more than 50,000 employees of the Cleveland Clinic, which found that those who had previously been infected with SARS-CoV-2 had “the same, if not better, immunity” than those who had been vaccinated.
“If we deny this and say, ‘put your head in the sand, everyone get vaccinated’ … Guess what? … People are going to hesitate because they think you are not telling them not the truth, ”Paul said.
Bailey said past infections should be “considered”, but also stressed that “a previous infection is not as robust to protect against newer variants as the vaccine.”
Paul argued that was not true.
“[A]All tests on natural immunity and vaccinated [people] has shown that we have great immunity both with the vaccine and with natural immunity, ”he said, cutting off Bailey.
Another senator later gave Bailey a chance to complete her answer, and although she noted that there are thousands of studies in the literature, her understanding is that “adequate vaccination … with the two mRNA vaccines or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine gives you better protection against variants than natural immunity. “
Throughout the hearing, Bailey also highlighted the role of doctors as “vaccine ambassadors” and urged lawmakers to make vaccines more available in doctor’s offices.
“It’s much easier to get the arm shot when your patients are actually in your office and the vaccines are in your office,” she explained.