Churches recruited as mass vaccination sites, but not in Australia

Churches in the United Kingdom and United States are being used as mass vaccination hubs, as the countries roll out their COVID-19 vaccination plans. In Australia, however, churches have not been approached by government health authorities.

“We have not been approached about churches being used as vaccination centres and it seems unlikely they would figure in the government’s plans,” a spokesperson for the Anglican Diocese of Sydney told Eternity.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney declined to comment.

Both denominations have extensive church buildings, including large cathedrals. These could be used as vaccination centres, as has been seen in other parts of the world.

From early December last year, the UK’s second oldest cathedral, Rochester Cathedral in Kent, opened its crypt (the large, stone chamber beneath the church) as a community testing centre. This was done in partnership with the local council.

From mid-January, Blackburn Cathedral in England’s north-west opened a mass vaccination hub – in partnership with the National Health Service – in its crypt. It prepared to host thousands of local residents.

Speaking with the BBC, the Dean of Blackburn, Peter Howell-Jones, said: “In many ways the Cathedral has now become this great hospitality centre … and that, for us, is a really important thing … in being welcoming to the community. Hospitality and welcome is at the heart of Christianity – we saw that with Jesus on the mountainside giving people food and drink.”

With so many churches and cathedrals coming forward in England to offer their spaces for use in the pandemic response, the Church of England called the provision of church spaces “a great act of service and witness”.

However it offered some guidance for church leaders to consider before offering their space for such purposes. The Church warned that “most of the vaccination hubs being set up are expecting to process upwards of 1,000 people a day – they need large spaces that are not needed for any other purposes, and that can be kept for the purposes of vaccinations for up to a year.”

In the United States, churches of all sizes have partnered with local counties to get the vaccine into under-served communities in particular. Baptist News reports churches have been recruited as part of the pandemic response in New York, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee so far.

In Georgia, First Baptist Church of Augusta partnered with University Hospital to provide 5,300 first-dose vaccinations over three days in late January. The recipients signed up for the appointments through their physicians, and the hospital administered the vaccines in the church’s Fellowship Hall. While at the church, patients were given appointments to return to the church for their second doses in late February.

The Australian Federal Government’s goal is to vaccinate 20 million people by October 2021 (which involves two doses per person). Health officials will need to lay out a plan for a vaccination rate of 200,000 doses per day, according to new research by health academics at the University of New South Wales.

“It seems clear that to deliver at the scale needed to meet government targets won’t be possible through GPs and pharmacies alone.”

Published on The Conversation, the UNSW research team said the goal was “ambitious” to say the least.

“200,000 vaccinations a day is a truly furious pace,” the team writes. “It’s possible, but will require dedicated large-scale vaccination sites capable of delivering thousands of doses a week in addition to the enthusiastic participation of general practices and community pharmacies countrywide.”

The first stage of Australia’s vaccination roll-out seeks to vaccinate the highest priority groups: border workers, front line health care staff, aged care staff and residents. Those people will receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which needs to be stored in an ultra-cold location. For that reason, phase 1 will be delivered via hospital hubs.

However, the UNSW researchers suggest that – pending approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration – the majority of Australians will be vaccinated with the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine. This vaccine can be stored in a regular fridge, opening up more possible options for vaccination locations. The researchers are calling for mass vaccination sites, above and beyond the general practices and community pharmacies which have been recruited already.

“It seems clear that to deliver at the scale needed to meet government targets won’t be possible through GPs and pharmacies alone.” They suggest a similar approach be taken as in the United Kingdom, where conference centres, sports stadiums, churches and mosques have been co-opted as mass vaccination hubs, “to great effect”.

A 2018 NSW Health Influenza Pandemic Plan outlined suitable facilities for mass vaccinations including community health centres, council premises, schools and licensed clubs, suggesting emergency management committees should enter agreements with such facility operators “well in advance of a pandemic”.

The suggestion for churches to become vaccination hubs could resurrect the concerns of some Australian church leaders about the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine. In August 2020, some Christian leaders wrote a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to seek alternative COVID-19 vaccines. The concerns were raised in light of AstraZeneca using a cell line cultured from an electively-aborted human foetus to develop the vaccine.

Several vaccine candidates have been developed using cells derived from foetuses aborted decades ago.

In December, the Vatican announced that the use of Covid-19 vaccines developed using cell-lines derived from aborted foetuses is “morally acceptable”.

In text approved by Pope Francis, the Catholic Church wrote: “All vaccinations recognised as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal co-operation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.”