In late March 2020, Eric “Smith” 1 was getting his sixth-grade theology class ramped up on Zoom. The plan for the day was to build sufficient student understanding of the ten commandments first, then set up discussion of the virtues and deadly sins. While it sounds like pretty heady material for 11-year-olds, such is the stuff of quality preK-8 Catholic education. Our Lady of Mercy School’s mission is to develop “saints and scholars” and though that academic year was his first at this East Greenwich, Rhode Island school, Mr. Smith was all in. With experience as a Catholic educator dating back to 2007, he knew what he was doing. Armed with a Socratic approach and heavy emphasis on asking questions, Mr. Smith aimed to get his students thinking aloud. And he regularly succeeded in prompting discussion, argument and counterargument. I know because I listened to him teach for the better part of three months that spring.
During that now infamous semester, I was on research sabbatical from my college teaching position. When Rhode Island shut down on March 13 and OLM transitioned to online learning, my wife and I scurried to make space for our two older daughters in our home office. Our oldest was in Mr. Smith’s class. Halfway through her first year of middle school, she had declared her love for the liberal arts and theology was a favorite. She credited Mr. Smith with motivating a desire to better understand her faith. He was very funny but also tough. He challenged her to think. And ever since those few months of distance learning, I will admit that he has challenged me to think, too.
While Mr. Smith was helping students adjust to their new learning environment, his wife was attending to patients at Our Lady of Fatima, a hospital once operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese in North Providence. Like her husband, Karin was a life-long Rhode Islander. Over the course of her 25 years as a —When the pandemic arrived, Karin’s experience gave her assurance. She shares that she wasn’t particularly worried about contracting COVID from a patient. It would have been like “a ship captain fearing the sea,” she says. And that means something coming from this mother of four, including two adult children currently serving in the Navy as Masters-at-arms.
But very early on, Karin observed that hospital administrators seemed somewhat less prepared. Rather than leading with calm and prudence, they were frenzied by fear. This tone at the top wasn’t particularly productive given that these same administrators were unable to provide the much-needed personal protective equipment we have all since heard so much about. Nurses at Fatima waited for N95 masks for over a month, during which time only disposable masks were issued. When N95s did become available, administrators rationed them. Concerned about the expense of N95s, administrators distributed what Karin said looked like “WW II-style rubber gas masks.” Difficult to breathe through and virtually impossible to project one’s voice from, this equipment made RNs’ jobs harder. But the choice for nurses became either wear these rubber masks or purchase N95s at your own expense. It was a slog. But like those at hospitals around the country, these frontline heroes won the hearts of their community.
But by April 2020, Karin had started noticing some things. While reports of hospitals being overrun with patients drove fear, they were not a fair depiction of her experience. Hospital capacity is a function of patients (the numerator) and beds (the denominator). The number of nurses determines the number of beds available. Fewer nurses mean fewer beds. Accordingly, regardless of the severity of the contagion, Karin explains that capacity could be reached with a low staff census rather than a huge surge in patients. And while her hospital was seeing patients, she sensed that if Fatima was at capacity, it was driven by a small denominator rather than a huge numerator. This offered Karin some early, important insight into the landscape of COVID. It also prompted her to think about other things which may not be what they seemed.
This thought remained with Karin as she and Eric started thinking about early news reports covering the development of vaccines. The media was obsessed with this story and the general public was not far behind. Karin found herself at work having frequent question-riddled conversations. How fast could these vaccines be developed? How could vaccines be available in time given typical timelines and procedures? The group of nurses would ask each other about their willingness to get a shot. Could this program dubbed, “Operation Warp Speed” produce something safe? Was it possible they would be forced to take the shot? According to Karin, in the beginning, most of her colleagues were leery, at best. “Emergency use” authorizations didn’t help. A general feeling was that these shots were seemingly experimental and would come without the data and clinical studies that typically accompanied tried and tested vaccines. This made Karin and her colleagues uncomfortable.
As a Catholic, Karin also thought about St. Paul and his admonition that one should never do evil with the hope that good might come of it. Would the production of these vaccines, in some way, involve the use of cells from an aborted baby?
As time went on and speculation over the shots transitioned to reality, it became clear that the Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer products would each be available in Rhode Island. Karin and Eric spent long hours researching these products in an effort to responsibly and prudentially discern the right course of action. They learned from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that the J&J shot was, in fact, “developed, tested” and “produced with abortion-derived cell lines.” Given the moral gravity of abortion and the destruction of human life it entails, Karin and Eric knew that this was not an option for them. In fact, the USCCB advised Catholics to only consider the J&J if no other options were possible and Bishop Tobin, their local bishop in Providence, publicly said the same.
The new mRNA vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer presented another challenge to conscience. While neither of these products used abortion-derived cell lines in production, both used abortion-derived cell lines during testing. If evil should not be done in the hope of good, was this a distinction without a difference? If every human life has dignity, should a manufacturer use cells from an aborted baby—a human life ended through abortion—in any way? Does the fact that the cells were used to test the product rather than to produce the product make any difference?
The Catholic Medical Association and the National Association of Catholic Nurses didn’t think so. In their joint statement earlier that year, the Catholic Medical Association and National Association of Catholic Nurses explicated: “If a vaccine has been developed, tested or produced with technology that an individual deems morally unacceptable, such as the use of abortion-derived fetal cell lines, vaccine refusal is morally acceptable.” In fact, the Vatican itself offered its December 2020 statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in which it emphasized: “practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”
Whatever Karin decided, it was quite clear to her based on the CDF’s statement: her choice “must be voluntary.” Free from coercion and force.
On August 10, 2021, the state of Rhode Island declared otherwise. That day, Governor Dan McKee decreed that all staff at state-licensed health care centers would be required to be vaccinated. For Karin, a year of praying over the situation came down to this: get the shot by October 1st or be fired.
She says now that she had plenty of company. Up to that point, many of her colleagues had chosen to remain unvaccinated. After the coercive mandate, few were left.
Just under two months later, before Thanksgiving, my two oldest daughters—now both in different sections of Mr. Smith’s middle school theology class—came home with a sad announcement. Mr. Smith was leaving. Eric explains that when Karin lost her job, the Smiths lost an important second income. With two younger children still at home, it was “stay and starve” or leave. Not much of a choice.
We’re reminded of Matthew’s gospel: “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matt 10:14). And so, they did. At the start of Advent, Eric and Karin Smith packed up their two younger children and left the state in which they had lived their entire lives.
Rhode Island’s loss is Florida’s gain.
Less than a month later—on January 3, 2022—the state of Rhode Island made an announcement. Due to significant staffing shortages, it would begin allowing COVID-positive medical staff to continue treating patients.
Said again: three months after firing unvaccinated staff, Rhode Island announced it is allowing COVID-positive, vaccinated nurses to come to work. But COVID-negative, unvaccinated nurses remain persona-non-grata.
Dr. Megan Ranney—an ER doctor and physician at Brown University—wanted to emphasize something important about the need to change policy when she spoke with WPRI Channel 12 in Providence: “I want to be clear—it’s not because of the vaccine mandates.” She reiterates that it’s due to a long-term nursing shortage and explains, “It’s really because people are burnt out and tired. And because some of our nurses and other staff can make more money going to other states.”
But Karin herself had noticed the effect of this nursing shortage two years earlier and, interestingly, it was never offered then as an explanation in media stories about hospitals being at capacity. In terms of stress, one has to wonder if the anxiety of vaccine mandates and being forced to choose between getting a shot or losing one’s paycheck might contribute to burn-out. And does anybody believe that nurses like Karin left their positions because they were chasing a better paycheck?
People, of course, can disagree with the Smith’s decision. Many do—including many Catholics. Those people, of course, can and should make vaccine decisions for themselves. But is it right for them to shame and shun people like the Smiths? While many may find it easy to poo-poo abortion-related concerns and moral questions about cooperating with evil, should they scoff at documented cases of myocarditis among vaccinated men? Should they say that the recent study of 6,000 vaccinated women in Norway which found that 40% reported menstrual cycle oddities following the shot are anti-science?
What can be said about a culture in which shaming the unvaccinated has become the norm? Such vilification is so widespread that it is impossible to exhaustively document.
President Biden offers one example. Despite the data clearly revealing something quite different, his practice of declaring this a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” is bizarre at best, dystopian at worst. I suppose one has to add that doing so while also declaring himself a “good Catholic” is another matter altogether.
Whether our president sets the tone or merely follows, is hard to say. But the Washington Post is on the same page, urging its readers to make life “a living hell” for the unvaccinated. CNN’s Don Lemon says unvaccinated people should be “left behind”; he encourages his viewers to “shame” them and call them “stupid.” MSNBC’s Joy Reid thinks companies should pay unvaccinated people less. Michael Hiltzik, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, says that mocking COVID-deaths among any unvaccinated is “necessary.” Arthur Caplan—ironically the “Ethics Director” of the NYU Grossman School of Medicine—told CNN that the unvaccinated should not be treated as “equals.” He encourages people to “condemn them”, “shame them” and “blame them.”
And, unfortunately, such derision is not aimed only at adults. Nor does it come from just secular perpetrators. My two oldest daughters, both unvaccinated, have been on the receiving end while serving as altar servers at our church. Personally interrogated by a lector on one occasion, indirectly ridiculed by an usher on another occasion. Around that same time, my oldest was pulled aside by an elderly, obese lady at our local pool club and scolded, “you’ll see—COVID is going to get you!” she said as she waved her crooked finger. Nice. Especially coming from a 75-year-old churchgoer.
But Dr. Marc Siegel, Professor of Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center confirms to Fox News that all of these people have it wrong. “This is spreading regardless of vaccination,” adding “those comments are ignorant and out of date.”
That may be true, but it didn’t stop many of our nation’s colleges and universities—even Catholic schools among them—from suggesting last fall that mandating vaccines for students was necessary because of the risk that being unvaccinated posed to others. Many of these schools are now using the same reasoning to require boosters.
But, in fact, the data reveals a very different story. Despite being instructed to think of vaccine efficacy as being beyond question, we now know that whatever protection vaccines provide against being infected and transmitting the disease to others dissipates quickly. Johnson & Johnson admitted at the start of this year that COVID cases among those who received the shot are not rare. Data from the UK show that less than five months after shots are administered, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are only 10% effective against infection and transmission. In western Europe, where many countries tout 90% vaccination rates, COVID infection from Omicron is soaring. Iceland has a 91% vaccination rate in its population of those over 12 years old (50% of people there even have the booster). Data there shows that it isn’t just that the number of vaccinated people testing positive for COVID exceeds the number of unvaccinated people testing positive, it is that the rate of COVID infection among the vaccinated (that is per capita) dwarfs the rate of COVID infection among the unvaccinated. Researchers in Denmark are finding the same thing. And so is the government of Ontario.
Now, we don’t know why this is happening. Some wonder if this indicates that—over time—vaccines provide negative immunity and speculate that the vaccine, for some reason, might make one more likely to be infected by Omicron. For now, that will remain an empirical question until more data is available. But it is a question. And having poured over a considerable amount of data in the more than twenty years since I began doing so as a doctoral student, I know that asking questions like this is not anti-science—it’s actually the very definition of empirical science.
As a marketer, I think I also have a sense for why many vaccinated people are so angry—and, yes—that is what they are: angry. And, to a degree, that may be understandable.
A year ago, the industrialized world embarked on a sophisticated communications campaign to vaccinate every living human being on the planet. There was reasonable question how to do it—there had never been a global messaging effort of this type in the history of mankind. What strategy would work to convince modern men and women that a shot developed in unprecedented time using new mRNA technology was safe? Especially given today’s consumer had spent the past 30 years watching pharmaceutical ads detailing the medium and long-term side-effects of any and every drug on the market, how could people be convinced that somehow this brand-new drug was the only drug without unintended consequences? And, of course, people wouldn’t get a vaccine if they didn’t think it would be highly effective, so stressing efficacy was important.
Marketers had the advantage of selling into a culture of fear, so it was likely a high percentage of people would be motivated to get the shot but probably needed a nudge to overcome any hesitancy over safety. Knowing that today’s consumers are very self-focused while wanting to appear very altruistic, the communication experts decided it best to anchor their strategy around primarily a humanitarian appeal with a secondary appeal to protecting oneself. The goal was to tap into citizens’ desire for self-preservation and protecting their own health but do so through emphasizing that the primary interest is protecting others, especially the most vulnerable. This strategy appeals to one’s proclivity to virtue signal and appear benevolent while still addressing the real concern for one’s own health. Win-win.
There was, of course, a flaw in this approach. It is nonsensical to sell people on getting the shot to protect others more vulnerable when the more vulnerable others can get the shot themselves. Marketers took a bet that the government and the media would help distract attention from this flaw by constructing semi-plausible counter-arguments which a public—with an eagerness to virtue signal—would buy. This worked for a while until the accumulation of global data made the truth hard to deny: vaccinated people were able to contract and transmit COVID to others. The humanitarian aspect of the appeal was beginning to unravel.
At the same time, marketers were left with another problem: emerging data was also beginning to demonstrate that the shot was not even very effective at offering protection to the person getting the shot. Messaging had to then change toward emphasizing that getting the shot helps to prevent against one’s own chances of being hospitalized or dying from COVID. Of course, now that the number of those vaccinated and hospitalized has gone up, the message has again changed—updated to make sure everyone knows that hospitalizations “with” COVID are different from hospitalizations “from” COVID. This, of course, had been true from the beginning of the pandemic but dismissed by the government and media because it hurt the narrative the communications team was trying to push.
The result of all of this is that vaccinated people must confront that they didn’t get vaccinated for anyone else but themselves and doing so won’t keep them from getting infected and may not even keep them out of the hospital. Which is to say that if I’m 80 and unwell, I’m probably still happy I took the vaccine. But if I’m 40, run five miles a day and have a resting heartbeat under 50, I may not be. And, I may be really ticked that I’m now being beckoned to take a booster, with Pfizer talking about a fourth shot sometime after that. When does it end?
Which brings us back to the story in Rhode Island. An interesting footnote to Karin Smith’s experience: following the state’s decision to allow COVID-positive, vaccinated staff to return to work to treat patients, two state-run facilities in Rhode Island immediately began implementing this policy. Just days later, one of those hospitals—Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston—reported a COVID outbreak infecting 14% of its 200 patients.
None of this reflects well on our culture. People like the Smiths don’t deserve what happened to them. And the sad truth is that each of us share some blame in allowing it to happen. For Catholics—including some of the Church’s leadership both here and abroad who have quietly watched and sometimes even participated in the vilification of the unvaccinated—now is the time for some introspection. We might be angry at our own situation but, at a minimum, let’s not be cruel to others.
(Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CWR staff or of Ignatius Press.)
1 Last name changed to protect identity
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!