East Tennessee churches offer COVID vaccines

Diocesan parishes set up temporary clinics to offer vaccinations to parishioners and the public                     

By Casey Keeley

As the state of Tennessee continues to weigh restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, many parishioners in the Diocese of Knoxville have been relieved at being able to attend Mass with fewer precautions involving masks and social distancing.

However, there are others in the community who still are unsure about returning to a pre-pandemic world, continuing to adhere to all of the precautions that were required over recent months.

Associates of Ballad Health give the vaccines at St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport.

Several parishes and at least one school within the Diocese of Knoxville are doing their best to ease the concerns of parishioners by teaming with public health officials to administer the COVID vaccine free of charge in parish facilities.

Counties within the diocese are doing their part to spread awareness about availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and are working with some parishes and community organizations to administer the inoculations.

Bishop Richard F. Stika has said he would like all parishes to follow suit.

“I will ask all pastors of this diocese to work with their local health departments to provide vaccines at parish locations. . . . I will ask all priests to encourage people to be vaccinated,” Bishop Stika said on July 31 during a Mass at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul.

St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport hosted its vaccination clinic in the parish life center in collaboration with Eastman Chemical Co. and Ballad Health. While St. Dominic identified the Hispanic community as primary recipients of the vaccine, the parish opened its doors to all who requested immunization.

“Originally we were targeting the Spanish population,” said St. Dominic parish nurse Delores Bertuso. “We wanted to make the vaccine available to that community in a safe environment where they could come and feel familiar with the territory. Not all of us administering the vaccine spoke Spanish, so we had some great members of the community who came to interpret for us.”

The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus hosted its first COVID vaccination clinic on July 25 after each of the Masses in collaboration with the Knox County Health Department, with a special focus on the Hispanic population.

“The cathedral is proud to partner with the Knox County Health Department to help out our community,” said Scott Barron, director of cathedral campus events. “Anyone was welcome, but we made a conscientious effort to target our Hispanic population and dispel any concerns they may have toward getting the COVID vaccine.”

St. Dominic Parish members and members of the public register for COVID-19 vaccines in Kingsport.

St. Michael the Archangel, a parish in Erwin, has had success in getting its parishioners vaccinated. The parish partnered with Ballad Health to make the vaccines available on Memorial Day, which resulted in 30 vaccinations that day. The first dose proved successful, and only one person was unaccounted for when the time came for the second dose.

“We had 30 people get the vaccination on the first round,” said Father Tom Charters, GHM, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel. “The second time around, 26 came back, two made appointments elsewhere, and only one did not show up.”

St. Patrick Parish in Morristown also focused on a minority community, and also with success. Scheduling its clinic to run after work hours, Hispanic ministry coordinator Veronica Galvin estimated more than 100 people showed up to get vaccinated on the first day.

“Part of the reason we held this at the church was because many of the people in the minority groups could not get the vaccine from the health department because the hours of the health department did not align with their work schedules,” Ms. Galvan said.

St. Mary Parish in Johnson City identified the Hispanic community as well in its vaccination efforts, but did not turn away anyone who wanted the vaccine at its clinic.

“The main challenge of getting people vaccinated is educating them,” said Maria Macriola, parish nurse at St. Mary. “Most people get their information from the media, whether that information is good or bad. We are trying to find a way to reach out and give them real information about the process of being vaccinated.”

The Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga worked in collaboration with the Hamilton County Health Department to give COVID vaccines at the downtown church.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with local health officials and for their sacrifice of several Sunday afternoons to provide this service for our parishioners, and we are happy to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the Chattanooga community,” said Maria Rist, who helped organize the basilica event.

Health-care professionals and volunteers at All Saints Parish in Knoxville stand (and sit) ready to provide COVID-19 vaccines on July 25.

The Knights of Columbus at All Saints Parish in Knoxville worked in collaboration with the James H. Quillen Veterans Administration Medical Center to support veterans within the diocese. The first dose was to be administered at the end of July, with the second dose slated for the end of August.

“All Saints Parish collaborated with the VA to administer COVID vaccines to veterans, their spouses, and their caregivers,” said Henry Usey of the All Saints Knights of Columbus council who organized the clinic. “We saw an opportunity to give back to those who served and we took it.”

Not only are churches opening their doors to hold these vaccination clinics, some schools are as well. Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga offered vaccinations to its students, faculty, and coaches.

“Notre Dame is grateful for Galen Medical Group’s willingness to host a vaccine clinic on campus for our faculty and staff wishing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Laura Goodhard, Notre Dame director of admissions.

Immigration statuses were not considered an obstacle in getting vaccinated, with clinic organizers saying everyone deserves the same health opportunities. Clinic organizers hope the efforts prove successful in quelling COVID-19 cases in East Tennessee.

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