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A Virginia Pastor Has A Mission To Encourage Vaccination Among Congregants

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As the pandemic continues, we're hearing from Americans about how it's affecting their lives, their livelihoods and their communities. Allen Jessee has spent most of his 59 years in southwestern Virginia, close to the Tennessee border. He was a chemistry major in college but wound up in a different profession. He is the lead pastor of Highlands Fellowship Church.

ALLEN JESSEE: No one really comes to the pastor when everything's going great. You know, we're sort of used to dealing with people in crisis, but not in the loss as much as we saw.

SIMON: Pastor Jessee says that in the early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 felt like it was a distant threat to his church members.

JESSEE: Then, all of a sudden, Thanksgiving came, and it just, you know, just began to skyrocket in our area. So what we'd seen on TV actually became personal. You know, I did more funerals from Thanksgiving till the end of January than I did in the whole 10 years I've been at the church. I mean, it was like every other day I was helping a grieving family. That really, you know, spiked my attention that I've got to do everything I can to help people get vaccinated when the vaccine becomes available.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JESSEE: You know, there was a huge demand in the beginning. We had encouraged our people - I have even spoken about it in some messages, just, you know, hey, you know, I want to encourage you to get the vaccine. And we felt like the best thing we could do is make our facilities available because a lot of our local health departments were saying they didn't have the capacity for parking and those kinds of things. So we offered all of our facilities and provided, you know, support with volunteers. We fed the health care workers lunch. We helped people get rides from some of our lower-economic places. We did some local commercials, television commercials, and we saw just tons and tons of people come to our location to get their vaccination.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JESSEE: It became apparent to me that we - you know, we were going to have people in our population base here in southwest Virginia that were not going to get the vaccination, and we began trying to figure out why is this the case. Well, one, the vaccination worked.

SIMON: COVID cases declined as elderly people got their shots. But that encouraging news led people to relax their guard. Vaccination rates froze. In Allen Jessee's part of Virginia, roughly two-thirds of residents are reportedly still unvaccinated. He says misinformation has contributed to that hesitancy.

JESSEE: You know, some of the women sort of shared about fertility, you know, issues. They just weren't sure. And then I think the biggest thing that people have been reluctant to get the vaccine because it's not FDA approved.

SIMON: We should note the FDA says the Pfizer vaccine is on track for full approval within the next month or so. Also, hundreds of millions of people have been vaccinated. There is no evidence it has any negative impact on fertility.

Pastor Allen Jessee says he continues to point people towards vaccination clinics and information but says he tries to be careful about just how hard to encourage people who might be reluctant. He compares it to preaching and being a parent.

JESSEE: Everything I've tried to push my kids and force my kids to do, it just doesn't ever work out well. But if your kids know that you love them and you care for them, then when you ask often, you know, they'll take that advice and they'll go that direction. But I definitely have gotten out of my comfort zone more on trying to encourage people to get the vaccination than I have at other times just because I've walked a different walk. You know, I've been with families that have lost loved ones. I know it is real. And I truly believe that vaccination works.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JESSEE: You know, not only within our congregation, but people just as we, you know, are at the grocery store, wherever we might be with kids will come up and say, hey, you know, thanks so much for opening up your facilities. We got our shots, and had we not seen your thoughts about it, we may not have gotten that.

Obviously, as people of faith, we believe that God can heal, we believe that God can do miracles. But in my thinking, it's not that I'm being anti-faithful if I rely on a vaccine. No, it helps me to know that God's given somebody the ability to produce that to help in this situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Pastor Allen Jessee of Highlands Fellowship Church in Abingdon, Va. And the pastor says as the delta variant takes hold in his community, new lines are forming at vaccination sites.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.