116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Shunning vaccines, Iowa Amish deal with COVID-19 as a community
Early precautions gave way to traditions
KALONA — Vernon Yoder and his wife, Inus, tended to their own tasks on a recent afternoon, Inus quilting while he wrote letters. It was starting to get dark in the house with no electric lights to brighten the space. They spoke quietly in German to each other about birthdays and dinner.
The couple had gone to a funeral for “a sister in the church” earlier that day, with more than 400 people in attendance. Vernon Yoder recalled a wedding they attended last July, with almost 1,000 people there.
He is one of about 1,300 Amish people living around Kalona. He grew up here and served as the bishop of his district for a time, stepping down in 2017. Like many Americans, the Amish in Kalona started the COVID-19 pandemic isolating and canceling large events. But by last summer, only a few months into it, the community returned to its practices of coming together in faith, grief and celebration.
The Amish returned to their large celebrations and church services because those traditions are central to their lives, lives filled with tradition. Besides, nobody in the community had died of the disease and only a handful of people had gotten so sick they were hospitalized.
“If you asked me if COVID-19 was a threat, I’d say no,” Bishop Tobias Yoder said.
The attitude is not different from that expressed by many other people. It’s an attitude that public health officials are battling, an attitude that is keeping many people — including the Amish — from getting vaccinated.
As far as Vernon Yoder knows, no one in the community is planning to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
The Amish life is built around faith and community. While some in the community have been infected with COVID-19 — and some were hospitalized because of the disease — Amish bishops said that their lifestyle is better protection than a vaccine.
The Amish grow and raise their own food and get consistent physical activity, which keeps them healthy along with working in proximity to livestock, Elson Miller said. Miller is the current bishop of Vernon Yoder’s district, which encompasses about 60 people. There are 10 districts in the Kalona area.
While getting the COVID-19 vaccine is ultimately a personal decision, Miller said he has discouraged people in his district from receiving COVID-19 vaccines. The majority opinion has been that people will take the disease over the vaccine, he said, because it hasn’t seemed that bad.
“In our opinion, we rely on our healthy immune systems for our vaccine,” Miller said.
Miller, along with two other Amish bishops, said there have been no deaths due to COVID-19 and only a couple of hospitalizations, though they believe many people in the community did contract the coronavirus at some point.
The lack of deaths there due to COVID-19 was confirmed by Kim Doehrmann, funeral director at Olson-Powell Memorial Chapel, affiliated with the Yoder-Powell Funeral Home, which provides services for the Amish community in Kalona.
This year hasn’t seen much more illness than others, Vernon Yoder said, in terms of people not feeling well enough to be out and about. Many people lost their sense of smell and taste, and some felt like they had the flu, but few felt worse than that.
Miller said he wasn’t sure when he had COVID-19, but he’s sure he did. Vernon Yoder hasn’t been ill at all throughout the pandemic, he said.
In addition to refusing vaccinations, those suspected of having COVID-19 in the community didn’t get tested unless they were admitted to the hospital, the bishops said. This has made quantifying the spread of the disease in the community difficult.
With the many in the community garnering natural immunity from already having the virus, the vaccine doesn’t seem necessary, Miller said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, immune response to COVID-19, including how long someone remains immune after being infected, are not yet understood. It’s expected to see some reinfections. The CDC stated that experts aren’t yet sure how much of a population needs to be vaccinated before herd immunity is reached.
There is also the matter of side effects from the vaccine, Miller said. They’re wary of potential long-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, and would rather get sick and recover. They are treating this vaccine like the flu shot and other vaccinations, which most people in the community opt out of receiving.
The CDC still is learning about how effectively the COVID-19 vaccine stops the spread of COVID-19, how long it protects vaccinated people from getting sick, and at what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated before most people, vaccinated or not, are protected.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Amish bishops talked with the Washington and Johnson county public health Departments about local and state government regulations when it came to social distancing and other requirements at events such as church services.
Bishop Perry Yoder said he spoke to Johnson County Public Health a few times in the spring and summer, and the department passed on recommendations about groups larger than 10 people not meeting, and the suspension of church services. The department made sure Perry Yoder knew testing was available.
The Amish halted in-person activities, including church services, school and large events like funerals and weddings, when Gov. Kim Reynolds proclaimed in April that people could not gather in large groups. Despite their belief that COVID-19 wasn’t much different from the flu, Miller said they wanted to listen to the governor.
People in the districts stopped meeting in mid-March, and returned to services with social distancing in May. Districts would meet for services outside, sitting in their buggies or remaining with their own families. Weddings were postponed, and funerals were not open to everyone.
By June 10, the entire community went back to usual practices, including holding full funerals and weddings. Miller said at that point they had decided that people were probably going to contract the virus either way, and if someone wanted to do all they could to avoid infection, the individual should stay home.
The time when services and gatherings were suspended was difficult for the close-knit community. Each district, ranging from 60 to 100 people, wasn’t able to gather together as they normally would. Those who worked in town were sent home as businesses closed, leaving some with no income and nothing to do. Couples who wanted to start their lives together could not hold one of the most important ceremonies of their lives.
Once Reynolds announced in May that churches would be allowed to hold services with social distancing, districts spent a period having church outside in their buggies, or sitting with their own families, away from others.
Vernon Yoder said while preaching wasn’t an issue — demonstrating his own loud voice by giving a quick sermon, in English — it felt like the Amish weren’t being allowed to live as they wanted.
“It made us think about the things we take for granted, and the blessings we have,” Vernon Yoder said. He said he thought about what rights the Amish had, and how they could be taken away.
Tobias Yoder said he spoke with both Johnson County and Washington County public health departments, and felt that procedures like the pausing of church services were infringing upon religious freedoms.
“I’m yet to be convinced that it’s a health issue, rather than a political one,” he said.
While the Amish have not been wearing masks or social distancing within their community, Tobias Yoder and Miller emphasized that they follow the rules of businesses in town, such as masks requirements in the bank. Despite Tobias’ skepticism about whether masks are actually effective, he said he would not disrespect anyone for the decision to wear one.
“We just need to treat each other with respect,” Tobias Yoder said.
Washington County Public Health Administrator Danielle Pettit-Majewski said a lack of testing among the Amish made it difficult to know just how prevalent the virus has been in the area and to trace contacts with those who did get the disease.
Pettit-Majewski spoke with Miller weekly from the beginning of the pandemic until August, when students were getting ready to head back to school. They would talk about how things were changing at the local and state level, and how to return safely to group events.
Rumors circulated around Kalona throughout the summer about how many of the Amish were sick after a large event, but there was no way to confirm it unless they got tested. Pettit-Majewski spoke some to Miller about testing, but she said the community had decided to treat COVID-19 like the flu and not get tested.
She recently gauged the Amish community’s interest in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine through Miller and other avenues, and said she found it lacking. No one wants the vaccine currently, she said, but if the county hears that there is a growing want in the area, public health officials are willing to meet the Amish where they are.
“We can’t do much other than try to educate and reach out,” Pettit-Majewski said.
If someone is feeling sick, he or she is encouraged to stay home and not interact with others, Miller said, just like with any other illness. But they don’t plan to let one illness stop their lives. That means continuing to celebrate the traditions that bind them into their close-knit community — attending church services, large weddings and funerals.
“Don’t force your sickness on others, but don’t live in fear,” Tobias Yoder said.