‘Lean on God, but lean on science as well.’ Lumbee medical workers push for vaccine

By Sarah Nagem


Doctors and nurses who are members of the Lumbee tribe are urging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and some are evoking faith and science in their message.

Vaccination rates among American Indians have lagged behind other races and ethnic groups in Robeson County, home to the Lumbee headquarters. The tribe is known for its deep Christian faith, and some say their trust in God’s will contributes to their decision to skip the shot. 

But in a series of videos produced by the tribe, some health care workers say God and medicine go together.

“Let’s use common sense that the good Lord gave us,” Elliot Lowry, a nurse anesthetist at Scotland Health, said in a video. “And I say good Lord because our community prides itself on walking with the Lord. The Lord gave us the knowledge to read the data, understand the science. Let’s use that.”

Dr. Katie Lowry at Robeson Pediatrics said when her young patients ask what they can do to slow the spread of the coronavirus, she tells them to wear a mask. 

“You’re protecting yourself, and you’re protecting others,” she said. “That’s what Jesus would have us to do.”

American Indians make up 43% of the population in Robeson County, but they account for only 29% of people in the county who are fully vaccinated, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. 

But numbers are moving in the right direction, noted Dr. Joseph Roberts, vice president and chief medical officer at UNC Southeastern in Lumberton.

The county’s rate of fully vaccinated residents is 35%, up from 27% in early August and nudging Robeson out of last place among North Carolina’s 100 counties. (Neighboring Hoke County has a fully vaccinated rate of 29%, and Gates County in the state’s northeastern corner also has a rate of 35%, data shows.)  

Roberts said tribal chairman Harvey Godwin Jr.’s “persistence” is paying off, although the county still lags behind the statewide fully vaccinated rate of 57%. 

The tribe has been producing a series of videos featuring tribal leaders, pastors, educators, pageant winners and now medical professionals who talk about the importance and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.

In one video, Dr. Tala Smith Lowry with the Scotland Health Care System discouraged the use of ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug sometimes used in animals. 

Some patients ask her about taking vitamins to boost their immune system, but antibodies from the vaccine are the best defense against COVID, Smith Lowry said. 

“I tell my cancer patients to take vitamins and stay healthy, but they’re also still getting their chemo,” she said. “I tell my diabetics to do that, but they’re also still taking their insulin. So it’s not a substitute for the vaccine.” 

Religion has long played a role in discussions about vaccines, and it’s no different among the Lumbee people, whose 55,000 members make up the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River. 

Like some of the Lumbee medical professionals in the tribe’s video campaign, pastors and tribal leaders said faith shouldn’t deter anyone from getting the COVID vaccine.

“God is my shield and my protector, but he’s using this shot to help me stay COVID free,” Mike Cummings, pastor at Deep Branch Baptist Church in Lumberton, said in a video. 

Gerald Goolsby, a tribal council member, said getting the vaccine “is not a faith thing or a lack of faith thing.” 

“We all prayed for a cure or a weapon to fight this terrible disease,” he said in a video. “I believe in my heart that God sent us this vaccine to help us fight this disease.” 

Southeastern North Carolina was hit hard by the delta variant over the summer, which caused local hospitals to fill up once again with mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

But the number of people hospitalized with the virus has dropped. UNC Health Southeastern in Robeson County said it had 18 COVID patients on Oct. 2, down from record highs of more than 50 last month. 

Elliot Lowry, the nurse anesthetist at Scotland Health, said people should get the vaccine so they won’t be “up here in our hospital with a tube sticking out of your mouth.” 

“Lean on God,” he said, “but lean on science as well.”