This is Part 1 of a series of articles about people who are opting not be vaccinated.
Disclosure: We have changed the names of some church attendees at their request, because they fear they will be ostracized if their full names are made public in this series. Their identities and their attendance has been confirmed. Additionally, we gave the pastors the opportunity to comment or refute the information given by our sources but they declined to do so.
Throughout the pandemic, negative claims have swirled about the vaccine and the COVID-19 virus. Conspiracy theories to fear-based rumors have kept people from being vaccinated, even as the nation’s death toll (as of May 17) grew 997,468 persons, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention daily tracker.
Outreach efforts and community campaigns have failed to persuade those who have been convinced that they are safer by refusing to be vaccinated.
There have been a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Latino community. Los Angeles County Health Department reports case rates between two and four times higher among Latino residents. Hospitalization rates among Latinos were three to four times higher than rates for White and Asian residents in the latest Omicron surge and in California, to date, there have been more than 3 million Latinos with COVID-19 and more than 38,000 have died.
It has been startling to those who’ve been outreaching into underserved communities to find that the source of COVID-19 “myths and rumors” have come from those who have been viewed as trusted sources.
Around the country, there have been numerous cases of wayward Catholic priests and clergy from other faiths who, throughout the pandemic, have advised parishioners and churchgoers not to get vaccinated.
State and local LA County health officials have reached out to the faith-based community, and as a result, some churches have set up vaccination centers and have provided vaccination information links on their websites.
But despite these efforts, there are still those who continue to heed the warnings from clergy that announced to them during Sunday services at the start of the pandemic that the vaccine could cause them harm. The seed first planted in their minds from the pulpit has rooted and no amount of outreach has swayed them from their refusal to be vaccinated today.
Throughout the state, including predominantly Latino communities in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, it has been a challenge to increase the fact-based understanding of the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, especially in neighborhoods that have had higher rates of vaccine hesitancy.
The hesitancy and decision to refuse vaccination often brings a variety of explanations; however, there is a common thread of suspicion about COVID-19, the vaccine and treatment among numerous church-goers from a variety of faiths within the Latino community.
Jenny Gomez is an active member in a large Spanish language evangelical church who believes that God and her faith has led her to her decision not to get vaccinated. She homeschools her daughter and she refuses to wear a mask. Her decision to homeschool was solidified when California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced school vaccine mandates for staff and students.
“The pastor is telling us that more research is needed and based on his research that the vaccine was used with aborted fetal tissue, we could not morally take it,” Gomez said. “And it was his job to inform, and so that we can research and make an informative decision.
“We need people like this who will tell us not to just run and get it,” she said.
Gomez, however, refuses to provide the pastor’s name or the name of her church. “You can probably figure it out — he’s well-known and our church is large,” she said.
Gomez said that her pastor gave the church members a letter of religious exemption if they needed one to show to their employers, or to enter a location that required showing a vaccination card. But the letter wasn’t accepted by her employer. She said she lost her job working at a hotel because she refused to get vaccinated and is currently working small freelance jobs from home.
Her faith, Gomez said, is the overwhelming factor that drives her decision that she and her family will not be vaccinated. So much so, that when her mother was in the hospital with COVID-19, Gomez insisted they stop administering Remdesivir, the anti-viral drug.
She believes she saved her mother who cannot speak English from a sure death from the vaccine, and maintains that the COVID-19 treatments used in hospitals including Remdesivir that is given to patients in hospitals is killing them.
Gomez has had other family members who weren’t vaccinated and contracted COVID-19 that were given Remdesivir in the hospital and survived. Yet, she goes so far as to say that hospitals “are killing people.”
“I have a lot of people who I lost … brothers and sisters from my church who were healthy people who went to the hospital and died,” Gomez said.
“If I take the power away from God then I’m giving the power to the virus or the vaccine, and that fear will overwhelm my mind, body and spirit. And we believe in demons that don’t belong in us. If we cower down to fear … we take the power away from God,” she shares.
“Aborted fetal tissue is a big reason for all of us. The vaccine contains aborted fetal tissue and I am pro-life. I’m against abortions and what I’m doing to have aborted babies in my body. And the vaccine has monkey cells or frog cells, altering my genes and DNA and altering who I am in Christ and I’m no longer a human … They are gathering cells from monkeys and it’s not ethical when you are trying to inject that into human beings. The virus isn’t coming from God — it’s man-made.”
She said when she heard the first people who were getting vaccinated were “elderly, Hispanics and Blacks,” Gomez said she thought to herself, “that’s it, this is their way to get rid of the human race and I thought they are going to target us. The more I researched this for me and my family, [the more she thought] we were not going to be vaccinated.”
Gomez cites the controversial video “Plandemic” and controversial virologist Dr. Judy Mikovitz, a former scientist at the National Cancer Institute whose claims have been debunked by medical professionals. Gomez quotes Mikovitz to say that wearing a mask can activate viruses and make people sick and believes there is a very dark side at work that is harming people with the vaccine.
“I turned off the television a year and a half ago because they are scaring people. We can take care of our immune system with vitamins and minerals, instead of damaging our immune system by taking the vaccine,” Gomez said.
“Speaking to God on a daily basis, I had to make the decision to not let any invaders enter my system and destroy it. I believe God is all powerful and will protect me from everything. I do believe that God is the ultimate protector, and if he says my time is my time, then so be it.”
Members of St. Didacus and Our Lady of Peace, two well-known Catholic Churches based in the Northeast San Fernando Valley told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol newspaper that they are fearful about getting vaccinated after listening to their parish priests who where not recommending it.
Sara Contreras, a 75-year-old mother of six and grandmother of 12, is a deeply devout Catholic who said she is “grateful to God,” that she is “still here,” after getting COVID-19 in December of 2020. Contreras has a number of underlying conditions including diabetes but chose not to get the vaccination.
When she got sick, she was hit hard. “I just couldn’t breathe” she described. “At first I was trying to get well at home, but I got a call after taking some tests to tell me that I had pneumonia and I had to go in.
“It took me three months to get better. I didn’t know if I would, but I just prayed.”
Her 66-year-old brother would not be as lucky.
“I got it first,” Contreras recounts. “I believe I passed it to him. My poor brother died.” He, like Contreras, was not vaccinated.
Contreras believes her daughter, who attends a neighborhood Christian Church, brought the virus home to them. “I think she got the virus at her church,” she said. “The pastor at church, who also was not vaccinated and didn’t believe in vaccination, [according to Contreras’ daughter], got COVID-19 and passed away.”
Even though they’ve lost their own family member and the pastor to the virus, Contreras and her daughter still remain unvaccinated and maintain they are safer by being unvaccinated.
Prior to the pandemic, Contreras held prayer gatherings in her Sylmar home and would also help a longtime friend who had several health problems. “My friend was doing ok, but a week after she got vaccinated, she died.” While Contreras acknowledges her friend had many health challenges, she is prone to believe the vaccine caused her death.
She said she is planning to resume holding the prayer meetings at her home, but will not ask visitors if they are vaccinated. “It’s nobody’s business,” Contreras said, adding that “on my porch I will have masks and disinfectant for anyone who wants to used them.”
She shares her home with her son and daughter and grandson. Her extended family is always in and out of her home.
“I just don’t trust it and I don’t want it in my body. They came out with the vaccine so fast and they are all — the drug companies and the hospital –- they are all making money,” Contreras said. “They are saying everything is COVID-19 and diagnosing everyone with COVID-19 [to make money].”
She believes it is “too soon” to know the real effects and downfalls from the vaccine. She said she does wear a mask when she goes out but she lives in her home with three generations of her family like many Latino families trying to make ends meet.
“I may get vaccinated sometime in the future, I don’t know — maybe,” Contreras said. “But many things make me suspicious. When my brother was in the hospital, they wouldn’t let me see him. But after he died, they let me go in to see his body and I went in with just a mask and I could touch anything I wanted, even the nurse’s station. So what is really going on? I just pray for God’s grace,” she said.
Other local parishioners from the Latino communities of Sylmar, Pacoima and North Hills reported that their decision to refuse to get vaccinated was based on what they heard from their local priest.
“He didn’t say, exactly, ‘don’t get vaccinated,’ but he ‘warned us’ and said to ‘be careful,’ because our bodies have natural defenders to fight cancer and the vaccine will kill that defense,” said another elderly Sylmar resident and devout Catholic. Because she is very active in the local Catholic community as a volunteer, and her life is centered around the church, she asked that no name for her be used.
“I’m ok,” she said. “I don’t have it.” When asked for specifics and why she continues to volunteer at church operated facilities and events possibly exposing others to the virus, she maintains that she hasn’t experienced any COVID-19 symptoms and when asked, she will wear a mask.
When asked for more information about her position to refuse vaccination, which she said first came from her local church, she became quite protective of her neighborhood priest and local parish. “No one talks bad about my church,” she said emphatically.
When asked how she contends with the Pope’s message to be vaccinated, she quickly replied, “Not everyone agrees with the Pope.”
Although, like Contreras, she too, lost her oldest brother to COVID-19 and he was also not vaccinated — it isn’t enough to convince her to get vaccinated. Instead, she puts the blame elsewhere.
“They do all kinds of things to you when you’re in the hospital, and put all these tubes down you,” she said.
Father “Bob” at St. Didacus Church in Sylmar is one priest who has been outspoken from the pulpit, according to regular members of the church.
“He has spoken out against the vaccine from the very beginning,” said Alex Ramirez, adding he believed it was the priest’s right to speak out against the vaccine.
“It’s religion,” he said. “It’s not the state.”
Ramirez, a working father, refused to answer when asked if he had been vaccinated. “You can’t ask me that,” he said flatly.
Contreras noted that it’s her own decision not to get vaccinated and believes people “all hear things differently,” when she recalls her priest’s cautionary words about the vaccine. She doesn’t believe it was improper for her priest to raise doubts, “We’re ignorant about things, and we need to be told.”
The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is providing Spanish- and English-language WhatsApp chatbot tools to offer reliable information about COVID-19 to Californians, especially those in the Latino community. The chatbot is free and can be accessed by texting “hola” to (833) 422-1090.
In Part 2 and in the continuation of this series, the LA Archdiocese provides their public position on vaccination. Physicians with the California Department of Public Health, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health discuss the myths associated with COVID-19 and it’s variants. And parents discuss their concerns and reluctance to vaccinate their children.