By LISA EISENHAUER
There was no doubt among a panel of experts who discussed the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rationale for vaccination from a Catholic perspective that inoculation is a moral imperative in line with Catholic teachings.
"It's a great blessing from God," Fr. Nicanor Austriaco said of the broad availability of COVID vaccines in the United States. "Let's not abuse it. Let's get this done."
Fr. Austriaco, O.P., is a Catholic priest, molecular biologist and professor of biological sciences and of sacred theology at the University of Santo Tomas in his native Philippines.
He was one of six panelists who shared their experiences and insight during an online discussion (watch recording) Aug. 31 titled "Vaccination is a Life Issue" sponsored by the Center for Religion and Spirituality at Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic university in Los Angeles.
The discussion was moderated by author Jeannie Gaffigan. She asked the panelists to delve into "What is our duty as a part of the Catholic church to be a part of the solution to this problem?"
Exhaustion and frustration
Dr. Daniel Chavira, an emergency physician and professor of emergency medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, talked about the exhaustion and exasperation he is seeing among colleagues overwhelmed by providing COVID care.
"We regularly are short staffed. We regularly are short on nurses," he said of the two hospitals where he practices. "And everyone who is there is tired and is frustrated and is having so much real difficulty dealing with the fact that at this point a lot of this is avoidable."
Chavira said 95% of hospitalized COVID patients and nearly all of those in intensive care are unvaccinated. With the highly contagious delta variant spreading, he bemoaned how much higher the toll from the virus would go. By the end of August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the number of COVID deaths in the United States at almost 640,000.
Like others on the panel, Chavira pointed to vaccination as the best hope to end the plague. "We have the capacity to not get sick from this disease," he said. "We have the capacity to avoid straining the health care system anymore. We, your health care providers, would, I think, universally beg you to get vaccinated."
Strains on staff, finances
Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA's president and chief executive officer, said Catholic health care providers across the nation are straining under the relentless demands of caring for COVID patients.
"It has gotten such that we are worried about the well-being of our staff," she said. "We have redirected chaplains who generally serve our patients. They're now caring for the frontline caregivers."
Sr. Mary noted that many health systems are struggling to recruit workers, and some are in financial straits as service lines get put on hold amid the pandemic.
"We worry about the current moment but I'm wanting to voice the concern about the future," she said. "What is this looking like for us when all our resources are focused right now on COVID?"
'A life issue'
Two of the panelists were married physicians who work as hospitalists at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and teach at Harvard Medical School. They identified themselves as "pro-life, daily Mass type of Catholics."
Dr. Nancy Hernandez Heyne said she opted to be vaccinated for COVID in January during her third trimester of pregnancy. Her decision came down to balancing the risks of the virus, which have been shown to be worse for expectant mothers, and the risks of the shot.
She said neither she nor her infant son suffered adverse effects from vaccination.
"This is truly a life issue. As a pro-life church, we're pro-baby, we're pro-mother," she said. "When we protest abortion, we talk about loving both the mother and the baby. I very strongly feel that by vaccinating pregnant women we are also vaccinating the most vulnerable, which are the unborn babies in the womb."
Her husband, Dr. Tommy F. Heyne, said while some "fringe doctors" are spreading disinformation about the vaccines, he and all of the physicians he works with are vaccinated.
"Honestly, to us physicians, receiving the vaccine is as commonsensical as wearing your seatbelt when you're driving or putting on a helmet when you ride on a bike," he said.
Trusting in science
Tommy Heyne mentioned that the pope and most bishops are urging people to get vaccinated. He said the embrace of the vaccines by the Catholic hierarchy is in line with the church's long history of supporting scientific advances.
"Anyone who is telling you that we shouldn't trust science is honestly not being very Catholic," he said. "They don't understand Catholic history, Catholic theology. The church has very long opposed a sort of faith vs. science dichotomy."
Thomas V. Cunningham, the bioethics program director with Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center and a lecturer for the Bioethics Institute at Loyola Marymount University, weighed in to say that vaccination follows Catholic social teaching.
It is in line, he said, with principles that call on the faithful to do good because vaccination reduces death and suffering, and it means fewer delays of care for people with other medical conditions.
'Love can triumph'
Fr. Austriaco said Catholics need not avoid the currently available vaccines out of moral concerns that stem cell lines derived from fetal tissue were used in the manufacture or testing. He said the merits of the shots far outweigh those concerns.
"We don't think our use of the vaccines today will trigger a future abortion," he said. "In contrast, however, not using the vaccine today — and this is important for our pro-life viewers — could lead to the death of someone who is old, someone who is poor, someone who has got diabetes and so we have to consider and weigh the moral repercussions of our actions."
He ended the discussion with a prayer for those with COVID and for health care workers and their families. It also addressed those who are vaccine hesitant.
He said: "We ask that you give them the grace to increase their courage and their charity so that they may see that, in spite of fear, love can triumph if they would do this for themselves, for their families, for the world."