(RNS) — A day after President Joe Biden announced sweeping policy changes to continue to address the COVID-19 pandemic, one of his administration’s top health officials said he doesn’t expect widespread use of religious exemptions to get around them.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, also acknowledged Friday (Sept. 10) that he is “a bit” frustrated with fellow evangelicals who have hesitated or refused to get the vaccine, even as the delta variant has led to an average of more than 1,000 U.S. deaths a day.
Collins said he hopes the “much more muscular requirements” will make “a big difference” in reducing the number of unvaccinated Americans, noting the country needs to vaccinate at least five times the 800,000 who are being vaccinated daily in order to overcome the variant.
Among the new policies is an “emergency rule” Biden said the Labor Department will develop to require U.S. businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate their staffs are fully vaccinated or show weekly they have tested negative for COVID-19.
Collins spoke to Religion News Service about how that rule might affect religious organizations, how clergy can help congregants view vaccinations and how part of his “calling” is to encourage religious groups to work to end the pandemic.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
President Biden said on Thursday that “this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and you have urged your fellow evangelicals to get vaccinated as an ” opportunity to do something for your neighbors.” But studies have shown white evangelicals are among the most resistant and hesitant toward the COVID-19 vaccine. Does this make you frustrated with your fellow believers?
Well, to be honest, it does a bit. But I’m also trying to be sure I’m listening carefully to what the concerns are because I don’t think lecturing is probably the best way to get people to change their minds. It is odd because evangelicals generally believe strongly in this love-your-neighbor principle. And we do know if we want to get this terrible pandemic to come to an end, it’s going to require all of us to get engaged in getting immune, and the best way to do that is with a vaccination. And by vaccinating yourself you’re also providing protection to the people around you who are depending on you not to spread that virus to them, particularly people who are immunocompromised from cancer or organ transplants or kids under 12 who can’t be vaccinated yet.
There have been some reports of pastors with near-death experiences with COVID who have changed their mind about their resistance to the vaccine at that point. Is their example what it might take for some people to roll up their sleeves?
I think every person’s got a somewhat different threshold for what it’s going to take. It’s often somebody they trust, who’s willing to talk with them, listen to the concerns — much of which are fed by conspiracies on social media that basically don’t have any truth to them but are troubling if you’ve heard them several times — and then basically get the confidence of that person that the evidence really is in favor of this. And that, for somebody who’s a believer, this is what you could call an answer to prayer. If we’ve all been praying to God to somehow deliver us from this terrible pandemic, and what happens is these vaccines get developed that are safe and effective, well, why wouldn’t you want to say, “Thank you, God” and roll up your sleeve?