ROGERS -- Hoping to visit his mom at Christmas time, he got tested for COVID-19. It was not his first test, but this time, he was feeling more fatigued than usual. In the past several months, he had been tested 14 times, always trying to be responsible in his ministry and always testing negative. But this test was positive.
His holiday plans and Mass schedules quickly changed to quarantine.
Father Jason Sharbaugh survived COVID-19, but as pastor to many young adults at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, Father Sharbaugh now advises people to be informed, be responsible and vaccinate. He made that decision for himself and when the opportunity arrived, he took the first shot in Phase 1-B Jan. 29. The state is currently vaccinating residents 70 years old and older and anyone in the education field, from daycare workers to college professors.
Many Arkansans are making the choice to vaccinate, with more than 458,000 vaccinations given as of Feb. 16. About 15 million people in the U.S., or about 4.5 percent of the country, have been fully vaccinated.
Many priests and Catholic educators have been vaccinated with at least their first shot. All Catholic schools in the state have offered shot clinics on-site or at nearby pharmacies to employees, including pastors and associate pastors who are younger than 70. Superintendent Theresa Hall said 90 percent of school employees have requested shots.
“We have not made it mandatory that the employees and volunteers receive the vaccine and will not unless it becomes a state law,” she said.
When Kristi Brackett, music director at St. Vincent de Paul School in Rogers, was offered the vaccine, she jumped at the chance.
“Despite the frigid temperatures and the snow, I was not going to miss this,” Brackett said.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey at the end of January found that not everyone is saying yes. While almost half (47 percent) want to get the vaccine as soon as possible, about 31 percent of U.S. adults are taking a “wait and see” approach to the vaccine.
During a White House COVID-19 response team briefing Feb. 17, health experts emphasized that lowering COVID-19 cases across the U.S. was critical to preventing another surge energized by variants and in helping vaccines work against mutations.
More than 500,000 Americans have died, including 5,357 in Arkansas.
So why are some choosing not to vaccinate?
“I know some are concerned about getting the vaccine because they have doubts about receiving any kind of vaccine, whether it be for measles, the flu or any other condition for which there are vaccines,” said Msgr. David LeSieur, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul.
However, Msgr. LeSieur, who received his second dose of the vaccine Feb. 12, believes the benefits outweigh the risks.
“The Vatican and our own Bishop (Anthony B.) Taylor have encouraged us to be vaccinated in order to slow the spread of the virus and to protect citizens around our state, our country and the world,” he said. “There may be room for doubt about the morality of the shots, but there is also room for doubt about the validity of the warnings against the shots; so I believe that the benefit of either doubt goes in favor of being vaccinated.”
In order to continue to exercise his ministry effectively, Father Jason Tyler chose to vaccinate and had his first vaccine Jan. 27. Father Tyler, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville and medical bioethicist for the Diocese of Little Rock, has also heard the reasons why some parishioners are choosing not to vaccinate.
“Some believe that the vaccines currently available have a remote connection to a past abortion,” Father Tyler said. “But unfortunately, some have misunderstood that connection. Many seem to think that children were killed specifically to create these vaccines or that those children's cells are present in the vaccines. In actuality, some testing for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used cell lines that were developed from an abortion that took place in 1972. It's true that we should push for vaccines developed with an ethically superior method of testing, but we are not obligated to refuse these vaccines, like the Vatican, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and many individual bishops have said.”
While Catholic social teaching has the common good as one of its core principles, Father Tyler said another of those principles is called subsidiarity.
“Subsidiarity means that decisions should be made at the most local level possible. Some very personal decisions are best handled at the level of the family or individual person. Each individual should know his or her situation better than anyone else and better than society as a whole. People may have good reasons to refuse the vaccine: for example, maybe someone has had allergic reactions to almost every vaccine he or she has ever taken,” he said.
Father Tyler said he also understands why some believe vaccines should not be required, pointing to the "law of unintended consequences." He explained mandating a vaccine could lead to a backlash against it.
“For those reasons, I hope society continues to promote but not require this vaccination,” he said.
Despite the nation’s race for the development of a vaccine and the much-anticipated rollout, some individuals still carry lingering doubts about the efficacy, safety and validity of the vaccine.
Nonetheless, health experts all agree that vaccines, along with masks, social distancing and testing, are the best tools to fight against the virus and new variants.
Conversations about whether to be inoculated have often divided a public already at odds. Interestingly, in the Kaiser poll, many adults said a close friend or family member getting vaccinated would most likely sway their decision.
Father John Connell understands that thinking. As vicar general for the Diocese of Little Rock, Father Connell said he feels his decision to be vaccinated may encourage others to do the same.
“Take the shot. If it is good enough for our Holy Father and our bishop, it is good enough for me. The risks are low and it helps our communities and our society as a whole beat this virus,” said Father Connell, who is pastor at St. Joseph Church in Tontitown and St. Raphael Church in Springdale. “You know, the Lord works in both mysterious and marvelous ways. This vaccine is one of them. Even though this vaccine is a scientific marvel, our Lord works through our scientists, doctors and nurses. To reject this idea is to reject that the Lord is present in the world in which we live. Taking the shot shows my parishioners that it is OK to receive it for personal protection against the virus and for the common good.”
“Vaccinations are important in maintaining one’s own health, the health of loved ones and are for the common good, which is intrinsic to responsibility and an essential element of the Church’s social teaching of the Gospel,” Father Sharbaugh said.
Msgr. LeSieur said he felt the 95 percent efficacy of the vaccines will go a long way to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
"Not only will it help protect the ones receiving the vaccine, it will also help protect others who live with and work with those vaccinated,” Msgr. LeSieur said.
Father Tyler agreed.
“Give it good consideration when your turn comes up,” he said. “All of us want to get back to something like regular life again. The vaccine gives us a good chance to do that.”
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