Florida church reeling after six members die within 10 days amid spike in cases

For George Davis, a bishop at Impact Church in Jacksonville, getting vaccinated against the coronavirus was an act of faith. He says that he believes in divine creation, and that the shot is a miracle - a sign of God guiding scientists in their attempts to curb a devastating virus. Yet, for his nondenominational congregation, the provenance of a lifesaving tool was not as obvious.

The hesitancy was clear from the beginning. When cases surged, some of Davis's congregation, which numbers more than 6,000 parishioners, had a different idea of the pandemic's effects. One spat back false information to the pastor. Others did not trust government and health officials. Davis said he tried to bridge the gap - enacting safety measures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encouraging vaccinations when doses were made available, and discussing the virus on social media.

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Still, he said, some did not listen. Six of the church's members, Davis said, died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in 10 days. Four of them were healthy and younger than 35; all were unvaccinated.

"It's very frustrating knowing that these were avoidable deaths," he said. "You also don't want the loved ones who are left behind to feel horrible and don't want to seem like I'm putting guilt onto them, but the reality is, I know that these people would still be here had they gotten the shot."

It was the devastation that "emboldened" Davis to organize a vaccination drive after each of Sunday's three services, he said - an unusual move for a Black pastor when the pandemic has divided people across spiritual, ideological and racial lines. While Florida is among the states with the highest infection rates during the new virus surge, Davis's attempts underscore widespread vaccine hesitancy and the ongoing debate between science and some religious leaders - one that has been especially exacerbated by the pandemic.

In Davis's experience, medicine and faith are two sides of the same coin.

When doctors diagnosed sickle cell disease in his daughter when she was an infant, they said she was probably not going to live long. Davis and his wife, who is a senior pastor at Impact, prayed, fasted and took Communion every day for two years. At the same time, they researched procedures that could help their baby.

Now, after a bone-marrow transplant, she's 19.

"The miracle is no less of a miracle if medical science has to kick in to finish it off," he said. "For me, that's a little bit of a turning point, because I've seen God do it with no medical help up until a point and then finish it off with medical help. And that's what I [see] in this virus, too."

Since the pandemic began in the United States, Davis's sermons have urged protection and emphasized the coexistence of science and faith. For Davis, the need to care for one another led him to another role: a trusted adviser in a church where about 75% of parishioners are Black, a demographic that struggles with a legacy of distrust in medical institutions.

The Tuskegee Study from the 1930s to the '70s - a secret experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service to research the progression of syphilis in Black males without treatment - is one major reason health officials' outreach in Black communities has suffered, Davis said. Many of his parishioners refused to get vaccinated at a government-run vaccination center in front of the church, prompting the pastor to organize a campaign in March.

"My pushback was, 'I promise you, we'll get you a good turnout because there are a lot of people who are more comfortable coming to their church for a vaccine than they would be going to a government-run health location,' " he said. "And it turned out to be true. Some 1,000 people registered and 800 showed up."

Davis's observation is consistent with a March study by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. It found that about 36% of Black Protestants who are vaccine-hesitant said faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get vaccinated. About 70% said they would turn to a religious leader for information about vaccination.

The success of Davis's first vaccine drive, combined with devastation about the deaths of parishioners, inspired him to organize a second one for Sunday, when a panel of University of Florida experts was present to answer questions, he said.

More than 200 people were vaccinated, and 35% of them were teenagers.

"Several people who told me out of their own mouth, 'I wasn't comfortable doing this, but because I'm here in my church, because I've heard my pastor talk about it, I'm more comfortable doing it,' " he said. "And it isn't just the elderly folks, it was a lot of young people, who are also being affected by it."

Unvaccinated young people are increasingly among the most severe cases of the coronavirus's easier-to-spread delta variant, Mary Mayhew, president of the Florida Hospital Association, told The Washington Post on Wednesday.

"We now are seeing healthy 25-year-olds in the hospital in intensive care and on ventilators," she said. "The delta variant has been ripping through a younger unvaccinated population and putting them into the hospitals."

Cities with young populations have seen significant spikes in cases. Jacksonville faced a surge representing "200-plus percent of their previous highest peak," Mayhew said last week.

According to data from Baptist Health, the number of children admitted in July more than quadrupled from June. Across Baptist Health's five-hospital system, 579 covid-19 patients - including 19 children - were reported Sunday. Among the 116 patients in intensive care, five were children. An unvaccinated 16-year-old with no underlying health problems died Thursday at Baptist's Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville, the company said.

The increase in hospitalizations is not unique to Jacksonville. With 13,793 patients - a 30% uptick since last week - Florida is the state with the most hospitalized people in the country, according to data from The Post's coronavirus tracker.

Hospitals statewide have been overwhelmed, Mayhew said, but not only as a result of the pandemic: Covid-19, other illnesses and a staffing shortage have made the state's health care problems dire.

"This is why we need people to get vaccinated," Mayhew added.

States have offered incentives - including free doughnuts, beer and $100 savings bonds. Celebrities have lent their high-profile endorsements. Yet mistrust lingers, baffling officials.

Although a clear-cut answer may take time to find, the Impact Church pastor said the solution may have been nestled within communities the whole time.

"A lot of people look up to the entertainers and media moguls, but when it comes to trust, they trust the people in their communities," he said. "You know, your pastors, your barbers, your friends - those folks that you know have been there with you through some real tough times after."

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