Discussion invigorated by timeliness of COVID-19 vaccination developments and rollouts.
Adventist scholars of health and medicine, history, religion, and law offered a calm discussion about an often-contentious issue: vaccination. They examined it from various angles including legal mandates and the rationales therefore or against, safety and efficacy, and concerns among some religious groups. The February 27, 2021 live webinar, “Vaccines and the Faithful: Religious Liberty and the Common Good,” was sponsored by Loma Linda University School of Religion’s Religion and the Law Forum, the Church State Council of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and the Andrews University International Religious Liberty Institute.
Timed as the event was during the often-rocky distribution across the U.S. of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, the panel discussion focused a good dose on vaccination against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes COVID. (The same day as the event, the FDA granted emergency use authorization to a third COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals.)
A panelist who sits on the CDC COVID-19 Vaccines Work Group brought key scientific insight, while fellow panelists and the moderators brought legal, historical, and religious expertise.
• Michael Hogue, dean of Loma Linda University School of Pharmacy and member of the CDC COVID-19 Vaccines Work Group
• Nicholas Miller, director of the International Religious Liberty Institute at Andrews University
• Jennifer Gray Woods, associate general counsel at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
Moderating were Julius Nam and Zane Yi, co-chairs of the Religion and the Law Forum at Loma Linda University School of Religion. Nam introduced the event, and Yi prayed, concluding, “We ask for your wisdom this afternoon as we seek to understand how to be responsible citizens and to reflect your love to our world to bring about hope and healing.”
Connecting vaccines to hope and healing, Jennifer Woods spoke first, presenting the status of vaccination requirements and exemptions, along with public health rationales for them.
Numerous infectious diseases “no longer cause the havoc in the United States that they once did,” she said, crediting vaccination. She noted that all of the 50 United States mandate childhood vaccinations for school attendance as well as offer exemptions, with details varying by state. Herd immunity, a state in which a high enough percentage of the population is immune to a particular microbe to stem its transmission, is usually achieved through vaccination rather than prior infection, Woods noted. Herd immunity protects individuals who cannot receive vaccination for specific medical reasons.
“Because such high percentages of the population need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, the government has an interest in making sure that those percentages are reached to protect the community at large,” Woods said.
Nicholas Miller added legal and constitutional context regarding vaccination mandates by briefly explaining the two cases regarding vaccines that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled upon: Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) and Zucht v. King (1922). Both cases regarded the smallpox vaccine and upheld vaccination ordinances. Given the different contours of the two cases and developments since in medical law and civil liberties laws, Miller posited it more likely that courts today would rely upon Zucht as precedent, thereby allowing states and employers to create “conditions of access” to places and spaces, rather than using the Jacobson case as a precedent for possible enforcement.
Michael Hogue spoke next and shared reasons that we can be confident in the development process of vaccines against COVID-19 that have been approved under “emergency use authorization.”
To start with: The first cases of the disease were reported in late 2019, and scientists were able to sequence the entire genome of SARS-CoV-2 by mid-January 2020.
“That was pretty amazing… and this just shows how science evolves and how God allows us to learn so much from our world around us,” Hogue said, noting that this sequencing enabled teams to then quickly ramp up antigen creation for possible vaccines. He also explained other factors that have allowed a relatively fast turnaround in both development and testing, including many thousands more people enrolled in studies for the first three vaccines: 40,000 people per each vaccine compared to an average of about 24,000 per study of all vaccines the FDA has approved in the past 20 or so years.
Studies continue, Hogue noted, but clarified this: “…people have called this an experimental vaccine. It’s not experimental. I want to be very clear about that.”
The hurdles — logistical, epidemiological, ethical — of vaccine distribution drew comments from several members of the discussion, with noted issues including:
• Vaccine priority. Who gets it first — those individuals who are most vulnerable to the disease, or frontline workers who are most likely to spread the disease? (Mathematics says the latter to reach herd immunity faster.)
• Improving the distribution system so that already underserved communities don’t continue to suffer disproportionately.
• Vaccine acceptance:
—Listening to people’s concerns and addressing them.
—Putting rumors to rest.
—Building up broken trust with minority communities who’ve suffered systemic racism and unethical treatment.
• Mindset: Caring about community well-being and not just individual well-being.
Reasons legal, biblical, philosophical, religious, and moral were argued for caring for the greater good.
Jennifer Woods said, “We have to take a broader look than just ‘What’s in my best interest?’”
The Seventh-day Adventist Church, Woods also shared, has an immunization statement, which encourages responsible vaccination. It states, in part: “We value the health and safety of the population, which includes the maintenance of ‘herd immunity.’” (The Church has also published an article addressing concerns and offering counsel about COVID-19 vaccines.)
Nicholas Miller advocated that “We have to take a breath and a step back from the hyper-American individualism and recognize there are valid communitarian interests about loving our brothers and loving our neighbors that we need to make part of the equation.”
Zane Yi said, “God cares for the whole of creation and calls upon humans as stewards of that creation to care for it, and society is a part of that, as well as their neighbors.”
For all this, the discussion did not omit that there may be valid individual concerns about vaccination and that questions or fears should be thoughtfully addressed.
"There are always risks associated with any intervention, whether it’s a medicine you take or a vaccine," Hogue said, noting that the COVID-19 vaccine can often lead to temporary unpleasant symptoms — sore arm, headache, fever, chills, body aches — that indicate the immune system is responding as it should. Rarely, other things can occur. For example, about four out of every one million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered will lead to anaphylaxis, Hogue added, though also noting to his knowledge that no one has died due to an anaphylactic reaction; medical personnel treat it. Hogue also shot down a few false rumors about COVID-19 vaccination, including the unfounded myth that it can cause infertility.
In addition to medical questions, other reasons people may question vaccination in general were noted to include religion (for example, ingredient-based concerns). Major world religions appear to be accepting of COVID-19 vaccination, Miller said.
If in the future mandates are considered for COVID-19 vaccination, discussions about rights will abound.
“No constitutional right is absolute,” Miller said. “…Rights are a balancing… of individual values and community values.”
Julius Nam called this civic balancing act an “interplay of rights that we’re really struggling with.” Later, Nam offered as thought fodder for when this struggle moves within us the goalpost of Jesus’ desire for abundant life for all.
Closing comments were shared by Miller and Yi. The full discussion, spanning 90 minutes, was recorded and can be viewed on the Loma Linda University School of Religion’s website.
Heather Reifsnyder is a freelance writer and editor with a love of poetry, forests, and the Oxford English Dictionary. She lives in inland Southern California.
Image courtesy of Loma Linda University.
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