You can see in his slow walk and his dull eyes that Joe Gee is exhausted. churches
He’s exhausted physically from caring for several members of his family in the Perth-Andover area of western New Brunswick, who is infected with COVID-19.
And he’s exhausted emotionally because he believes he can trace those infections back to a local church with a pastor who, he’s been told, “discouraged people from protecting themselves” with vaccinations, masks and physical distancing.
“Different people who are connected with that church have explained, they have shared with me, that that pastor used this disease as a way to test people’s faith in the Lord.”
That also makes him angry.
“For people to say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t get angry’ … we all have a right to be scared, and we damn sure have a right to be angry.
“Vaccines are free. Vaccines are not poison.… You need to go get vaccinated because if you don’t, you just might be living the nightmare that I’m living right now.”
Gee is the only person among his siblings and parents who’s vaccSo he’sed. He’s breaking his silence to take on what he says is a widespread anti-vaccination sentiment in the Perth-Andover area driven by several local churches.
“It’s stupidity,” he says. “If you want to make this a thing about religion, why not tell people that the Lord has already answered our prayers by giving us brains and by giving us science?
“Jesus was a healer. People trusted Jesus. Why don’t they trust these doctors that have the information that we need to protect ourselves and protect our loved ones?”
WATCH | Anti-vaccine sentiment driving COVID-19 spread through N.B. community:
In an interview in Carlingford, the rural community where he lives outside Perth-Andover near the U.S. border, Gee says he’s “scared to death” of what’s happening to his family.
It would be easy to cut ties over their decision not to be vaccinated, but he says he can’t.
“I love all my family members, and it’s because I love them that I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling. If I didn’t love them, I wouldn’t care. I wouldn’t be here right now.”
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Indications of widespread infection in the community
It’s impossible to measure active COVID-19 cases around Perth-Andover. The province refuses to break down the 217 active issues in Zone 3, a large health region including Fredericton. Vaccination rates in the section are also not broken down by community.
But there are indications of widespread infections in this part of the zone.
Three schools in Perth-Andover have closed for two weeks. District superintendent David McTimoney said Wednesday the three schools have a total of 34 cases.
And the Upper River Valley Hospital in Waterville, which serves an area that also includes the towns of Woodstock and Hartland, was at 106 per cent capacity on Wednesday, the only Horizon Health hospital officially over the span at the time.
“Perth-Andover and the surrounding area is a hot zone right now for COVID cases,” Gee says.
“We’re hearing every day about different families and different people getting COVID and now it’s turned into, ‘This so-and-so lost their family member this day,’ and ‘So-and-so lost her family member today.’
“And it seems to be gaining some traction, and becoming more and more frequent. And it’s devastating.”
Gee’s father was hospitalized last week. The same morning he spoke to CBC News this week, he called 911 to have an uncle taken by ambulance to the hospital in Waterville.
When he arrived, there was no bed for him.
Retired insurance salesman and Perth-Andover resident Jim Pickett guesses there are 60 cases or more in the area.
“It’s all coming on at once, and vaccination, we’ve been told, is still the way out,” Pickett says. “How these people are so determined each day that they’re not going to get vaccinated … someone needs to drop a hammer.”
Former Progressive Conservative MLA Wes McLean says there’s “a mixture of fear and anxiety” in the community.
“I would call it a collective sadness among people of our community about what’s happening.”
He agrees there is “an anti-vaxx sentiment broadly” in the area.
Premier has said churches are source of cases
Gee won’t name the church that he says is the source of the outbreak infecting his family.
Pickett says he knows of at least three churches where pastors have preached against vaccines and other public health measures such as masks and distancing.
“Most of the people I find that are unvaccinated have some tie to one of the churches,” he says. “This certain church in Limestone Siding, I know of over 20 people that are sick or in the hospital or who have died, and we’ve never faced this before.”
That church, Amazing Grace Pentecostal, was also the location of the very first exposure notification in the area, back on Aug. 29.
Since then, there have been 20 more exposure notifications in Perth-Andover and nearby communities.
CBC News attempted to contact Roy Dee, the pastor at Amazing Grace, but he did not respond to two messages requesting an interview.
Premier Blaine Higgs has said churches have played a role in the growth of cases provincially. At first his government resisted imposing new COVID-19 restrictions on places of worship earlier this month.
But last Friday, the province’s new emergency order said churches must now choose between requiring proof of vaccination or holding services at 50 per cent capacity with distancing, contact tracing lists and no singing. Masks are mandatory with either option.
“This is one strict policy or another strict policy,” Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said.
‘I’m talking about it’
On Tuesday, everyone was masked as they entered the church for a funeral for Dee’s brother-in-law Donnie Moran. Moran died on Sept. 23 at the age of 90 following “a brief illness,” according to his obituary.
Pickett says there are signs that some attitudes are changing.
“There’s a certain church in our town where the minister told me a year ago this was all fake and foolishness,” he says.
“And I noticed last week at the restaurant, he was not talking with the same enthusiasm because he has now a few people infected in his church.”
Gee hopes that change is real. He’s sleeping and eating poorly and trying to overcome the stress that comes with monitoring his family’s health.
“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he says. “The nurses and the EMTs and the doctors and all the medical staff I know, I understand now what they’re going through.”
But he says he’ll use what energy he has left to loudly urge people to get vaccinated and to hold faith leaders accountable.
“For so long, the argument has been, ‘I don’t know anybody that has it.… It ain’t here,'” he says.
“But now that it’s here, people are trying to hide it. They don’t want to talk about it. And I think a lot of that comes from that church, telling people to keep hushed and, ‘Don’t say anything.’ So I’m coming out and I’m talking about it, and I’m going to do something about it.”
He says that may include a civil lawsuit against the pastor whose anti-vaccination preaching he believes sparked the outbreak in Carlingford.
Gee also doesn’t fear blowback from church-goers in the community who don’t want him speaking out.
“That’s the least of my worries right now. What I’m worried about is, who else this is going to kill and who else this is going to get sick?
“There’s going to be more people like me that’s vaccinated, that’s going to have to take care of the unvaccinated. I’m worried about our hospitals that are full right now.
“So I don’t give a rat’s ass about blowback. If I stayed silent and didn’t say anything at all and it kept going — I’m more worried about my conscience than I am blowback.”
If there’s one silver lining for Gee, it’s his engagement to his partner, Tracey Connors, which happened last Sunday at a moment when the burden of COVID got the better of him.
He got a call at home from a woman who had watched her sister die via video call at 4:30 that morning and who had seen his impassioned Facebook posts.
“She thanked me for being open, and so I broke down after that, and I realized that I wouldn’t have been able to do everything that I have if it hadn’t been for my fiancee,” he says.
He proposed to Connors on the spot. She said yes.
His vision of the wedding, whenever it happens, is a simple one: “That all my family is there, healthy and alive.”