MIAMI — As the president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, with a database of over 6,000 pastors, Gabriel Salguero was getting messages from pastors and parishioners commenting about posts they had seen on social media about the Covid-19 vaccine.
The information included false claims that the vaccines would alter people’s DNA, that microchips would be inserted and used to track people and that tissue from fetuses that had been aborted was used to develop the vaccines.
That’s when Salguero decided to step up and create ways to educate members about the vaccines and help with vaccination efforts.
“There’s just an avalanche of misinformation and maybe fear and anxiety that feeds that,” said Salguero, a pastor at The Gathering Place, an evangelical church in Orlando, Florida. “Our commitment is not to tell people what to do, but to make the information easily accessible and to give trustworthy platforms.”
Latino churches have become a double-edged sword when it comes to Covid-19 vaccines. While some help to educate members and get them vaccinated, others spread disinformation. That includes statements about the vaccines' being “the mark of the beast,” a reference to a passage from the Book of Revelation about the apocalypse. Others say the virus was planned by world leaders and developed in Wuhan in 2015 after they visited a lab there.
The information is being spread not only in churches, but also on some church groups' social media.
Experts worry that the false claims are contributing to vaccine hesitance among Hispanics, who have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
“I think that pastors share what they think is correct. I don't even know if all of them are aware it's misinformation,” Salguero said.
Salguero and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition recently launched an information campaign that will show public service announcements in churches, part of a wider initiative to make correct Covid-19 information and outreach available in both English and Spanish. They are also hosting national Covid-19 webinars with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, answering questions about the vaccines.
Latinos are overrepresented in the number of Covid-19 cases throughout the country, and they are also more likely to suffer worse outcomes than whites, including death. The majority of Latinos — over 70 percent —say they are probably or definitely going to get vaccinated, a percentage similar to that of non-Latino whites, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Yet only 36 percent of Hispanics said in the survey that they would "definitely" get vaccinated, compared to 46 percent of non-Latino whites. This is problematic, health experts say, because many Latinos are at higher risk of contracting the virus through their work. Around 43 percent of Latinos are essential workers and work outside the home, making them more vulnerable to exposure every day.
Latinos have been vaccinated at a slower rate than whites; in Florida, Latinos account for 27 percent of the population, and 16 percent have been vaccinated.
'Conspiracy theories have always existed'
To help vaccinate more Latino seniors, Rubén Giménez, an evangelical pastor, has been coordinating between the Association of Hispanic Ministers of South Florida and Jackson Health System, Miami’s public hospital, to help sign up members for appointments. The association includes about 800 churches and ministries.
While the vast majority of churches Giménez works with are helping schedule appointments for members of their congregations, some churches haven't contacted the group, and Giménez suspects some are skeptical of the vaccine.
Some pastors are falling for the conspiracy theories they see on social media, with others believing the pandemic and the vaccines are signs of the apocalypse.
“Conspiracy theories have always existed,” said Giménez, a pastor at Iglesia Misión Avivamiento in Hialeah and founder of the AFE community center, which has been distributing food to families in need.
He said some people once believed that computers and the internet were a mark of "the beast" and that the year 2000 would bring the end of the world.
“I believe in the apocalypse," Giménez said, referring to his religious beliefs. "But we cannot adopt it to every moment we live."
The influence of YouTube videos that feature presumed doctors falsely saying the vaccines contain microchips that will track people has been very detrimental, Latino pastors and doctors said.
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Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, chief of general internal medicine at the University of Miami, said he has been watching in fear as patients come to him with wild theories about the vaccines. Carrasquillo, whose research has focused on combating racial and ethnic health disparities, believes it’s part of a well-organized and concerted effort to create fear about the vaccines.
“What I'm really worried about is that somebody is doing this really well. They know exactly how to get to our communities,” said Carrasquillo, one of the principal investigators for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial. “They know that for many people, the faith leaders are the gatekeepers of what people think, and they're going through them," Carrasquillo said.
A push for enrollment
Each Thursday, Giménez said, the Association of Hispanic Ministers of South Florida compiles a list of seniors who want to get vaccinated. They then send it to Jackson Health System so it can follow up and schedule appointments.
“I was surprised to see how many people wanted to be vaccinated but had no idea how,” Giménez said. Some older Latinos were confused about the process, didn’t know how to sign up or didn't have the technological skills to navigate the internet for appointments.
While church networks like Salguero's and Giménez's work on vaccination enrollment efforts, the federal government has also taken aim at the vaccine hesitance that has emerged along with the disinformation. The White House has been reaching out to social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, about taking down content with disinformation about the vaccines.
The administration also began meeting with leaders from different communities, include Latino groups and faith leaders.