Won’t be home for Christmas

Mikaela Wegner –Co-Chief Editor 

It’s Christmas on top of a cliff in Brazil. At a beach house sitting above the Atlantic Ocean, around 40 people mingle in a yard. Steak and ribs sizzle on an outdoor grill, while dishes of green mixes and potato salad await their entree. The warm air smells of a sweet, salty smoke. There’s soda too, a lot of it. Specifically, there’s Coke products and no Pepsi, because Pepsi in Brazil tastes disgusting, according to Anna de Oliveira.

If COVID-19 didn’t exist, Oliveira’s Christmas break would look like this. But it won’t. Oliveira is not vaccinated and her vaccination status has made her unable to leave and return to the United States.

On Oct. 22, Aaron Baart, dean of chapel, sent an email to all international students. The email began by saying “we love you” and “you’re a huge part of what makes this place so special.” In highlighted letters, the email continued: “please carefully read the following email and then reply to me just to make sure we know that you received and read this message.”

The message referred to a recent federal regulation: As of Nov. 8, all travelers entering the United States must provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. For Dordt’s international students, this meant a required vaccination should they leave and return to the country over Christmas break.

In this issue, The Diamond reported that 35 percent of full-time, undergraduate Dordt students had been fully vaccinated, though the university did not supply the paper with specific statistics on the vaccination rates of international students or other demographics.

This past April, when the university held a vaccination clinic, Oliveira watched her roommates experience the temporary side effects of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Oliveira, having lived in West Africa for much of her life, has contracted malaria and other diseases that have, over time, weakened her immune system. She fears that if her roommates, people who she considered strong and healthy, felt sick for a week, she would be immobile for two to three. This was something she did not want to risk. 

In addition to personal health reasons, Oliveira is hesitant to trust the vaccine’s “too conveniently fast” development: 

“For me, it felt kind of odd that we’ve had illnesses in the world for decades and we don’t have a cure.” Oliveira said. “But then this illness has a huge outburst and in two or three months we have a vaccine?” 

The CDC recommends the COVID-19 vaccine for Americans in Oliveria’s age group and has verified the safety and effectiveness of each vaccine through tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials.

Oliveira’s vaccination status weighs on her. She feels there are “two sides of [her]self:” the one who just wishes to go home, and the other who is “trying to be okay” with taking the vaccine.

In America, 66.9 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Mayo Clinic. 

Baart has heard similar concerns about the vaccine from students like Oliveira. They’ve ranged from heart health and fertility concerns to questions about the certainty of information surrounding it. Given the students’ wide range of opinions towards the vaccine, Baart worries that some discussions will “jeopardize relationships.”

“For believers, it’s not just what we decide. “ Baart said. “It’s the way we act on the way to arriving at those decisions that might say more about us, at times, than the certainty of our convictions.”

According to Baart, Dordt wants to work with international students regarding their vaccination status and he hopes each student returns to campus after Christmas break: “It would be a terrible reason to lose a student,” Baart said.

Baart said one’s vaccination status is not a reflection of one “acting Christianly.” All the while, he believes Christians must put others before themselves, though this may vary in practice, he said.

“We would hope that every one of our students knows how to think critically,” Baart said. “To look at every issue through the lens of a Christian worldview… and let their faith inform their decisions before all else, and not a predetermined political allegiance.”

Given Dordt’s lower-than-average student body vaccination rate, Dr. Tony Jelsma, professor of biology, has worked to educate students about the vaccine. Specifically, he’s addressed the fears of the Johnson and Johnson’s use of HEK 293 cells.

HEK stands for human embryonic kidney cells. The number 293 refers to scientist Franklin Graham’s 293rd attempt to produce “immortalized cells.” 

In the 1970s, Graham partnered with Alex Van der Eb in hopes to create cells that would never die. Graham, using tissue from a healthy, aborted fetus, created a cell line true to human DNA able to be grown and tested. Graham’s created cells will never die. 

Jelsma obtained his Ph.D. in cancer research in 1989 and Graham held a position on Jelsma’s Ph.D. committee. According to Jelsma, HEK 293 cells are widely used: “people just use them all the time,” he said.

“As a scientific community we need to share in some of the guilt… I don’t want to be pragmatic in [saying] that the good they produce outweighs the bad,” Jelsma said. “Yet, out of a sinful situation, we can still obtain a lot of good.”

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine uses HEK 293 cells to quickly replicate the COVID-19 cells used in the process of vaccine production. In contrast, Modera and Pfizer, which are made up of synthetic RNA, do not involve HEK 293 cells in their production process. Still, all COVID-19 vaccines use HEK 293 cells in their testing.

If a person is bothered by the vaccine’s use of HEK 293 cells, Jelsma said they should take the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, which do not use these human embryotic kidney cells in their production. However, this reasoning is still flawed, according to Jelsma:

“You’re being really selective about your ethics,” Jelsma said. “If you’re drinking coffee that was harvested by people in South America or Central America who are exploited just so [you] can get cheaper coffee, well then go buy fair trade coffee. How many things that we routinely do in our lives are actually a result of abuse, and oppression, and sin and we take no notice of that?”

Jelsma participated in the COVID-19 vaccine trials in the summer of 2020 and received a booster shot several weeks ago. 

Regardless of one’s vaccination status, as of Nov. 8, Dordt’s unvaccinated international students will be forced to make a decision: get vaccinated so they may return home and to campus, forgo vaccination and stay on campus, or forgo vaccination and return home without coming back.

Though not returning home for Christmas break, Oliveira has decided to receive her COVID-19 vaccine so she can return home over the summer.

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