Many Bible Belt preachers silent on shots as COVID-19 surges

FILE - In this May 9, 2021 file photo, Rev. Joseph Jackson Jr. talks to his congregation at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee during a service. Health officials have an unsteady partner as they try to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19 in the Bible Belt: churches and pastors. Some preachers are praying for more inoculations and hosting vaccination clinics. Others are skirting the topic of vaccines or openly preaching against them in a region that's both deeply religious and reeling from a spike in cases. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger, File)

Dr. Danny Avula, the head of Virginia's COVID-19 vaccination effort, suspected he might have a problem getting pastors to publicly advocate for the shots when some members of his own church referred to them as "the mark of the beast," a biblical reference to allegiance to the devil, and the minister wasn't sure how to respond.

"A lot of pastors, based on where their congregations are at, are pretty hesitant to do so because this is so charged, and it immediately invites criticism and furor by the segment of your community that's not on board with that," Avula said.

Across the nation's deeply religious Bible Belt, a region beset by soaring infection rates from the fast-spreading delta variant of the virus, churches and pastors are both helping and hurting in the campaign to get people vaccinated against COVID-19.

Some