Pennsylvania is home to the largest “plain” population in the nation. Certain aspects of their life put them at greater risk for the coronavirus.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, medical groups reached out to Pennsylvania’s Amish and other ‘plain’ communities, hoping to quell the virus’ spread in a vulnerable population.
The communities, which are famously technology-averse, responded. They wore masks and socially distanced out of respect for their neighbors.
Now, with a life-saving vaccine available, reaching the Amish and other plain communities is more important than ever.
Approximately 70% to 80% of the population needs to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity, according to health experts. And since children make up roughly 24% of the population, almost every American adult needs to be vaccinated.
Statistics related to different religious groups receiving the vaccine are not collected and reported by the state health department. And members of the plain communities, especially the Amish, generally don’t speak with reporters or others outside their communities. So it’s difficult to know whether any in the plain communities have opted to get the shot.
Lisa Davis, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health, said her organization distributed newspaper articles and mailings to the plain communities at the beginning of the pandemic, but have not done outreach about vaccinations.
Other healthcare facilities, such as WellSpan in Ephrata and Lancaster General Health, also did outreach to the plain communities to educate them on the coronavirus at the beginning of the pandemic. Nothing has been done since.
Both facilities declined to comment.
Pennsylvania’s Plain Population and the Coronavirus
Pennsylvania is home to the largest plain population in the nation. More than 143,000 Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, and others live in the state, and the population is growing.
Nearly 84,000 are Amish. The rest—59,000—are Old Order and Conservative Mennonites, German Baptists, and Conservative Brethrens.
The plain communities are broken down into 59 settlements and 550 congregations across 37 Pennsylvania counties, said Cory Anderson, editor of the Journal of Amish & Plain Anabaptist Studies
“They are an ethnic religious group with fairly cohesive social networks,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be difficult to shift opinions after they have been formed. They aren’t going to shut down their day-to-day activities because of a disease.”
The groups share the same basic Bible teachings, philosophy of brotherhood, and sense of importance of family and community. They differ in dress, language, forms of worship, and the degree to which they allow influence from the “outside world.”
The Amish are the most conservative, using horses and buggies for transportation and shying away from technology. Most Brethren and Mennonites use cars, electricity, and telephones.
Certain aspects of plain life put these communities at greater risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus.
Religious services and other social gatherings are an important part of the culture, said Steve Nolt, interim director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies in Lancaster County. The idea of isolation is not something many Amish accept.
Amish homes tend to have elderly family members living in them with their children. As do Mennonite and Brethren. Anderson said the plain community believes in taking care of each other. Older individuals are rarely sent to live in retirement or nursing homes.
Nolt, who is most familiar with Lancaster County, said there was widespread belief that a number of Amish in the county got COVID-19 last summer. This was based on self-diagnosis, he said, as many did not get tested.
Some did end up in the hospital, Nolt said. But, at that time, hospitals were not allowing visitors. Nolt said this isolation deterred others from seeking medical treatment if they were infected.
How the Plain Communities Reacted to the Pandemic
Nolt said the reaction to the coronavirus public health crisis varied among the plain communities in Pennsylvania. At least from the start.
“For the first month and a half or so, the Amish (in Lancaster County) were cooperative,” Nolt said. “They ended the school year early. They didn’t meet for church. They put off social gatherings. Their initial response was less driven by medical concerns and more out of the respect for their neighbors.”
But as time wore on and their rural “English”—what they call outsiders— neighbors changed their views and behaviors, so did the Amish, Nolt said.
“When in contact with their English neighbors, a lot of those rural communities, rather than being scared or troubled, didn’t think it was such a big deal,” Nolt said. “So the main concerns guiding the Amish response weren’t all that compelling anymore. When their neighbors and local government officials responded differently, the Amish followed suit.”
The Amish stopped socially distancing and wearing masks. They started gathering together again in big groups.
Will the Amish and Other Plain Communities Get the Coronavirus Vaccine?
Everyone is eligible for the vaccine, regardless of religious beliefs, said Maggi Barton, spokesperson for the state Department of Health.
Some Amish get some vaccines, such as polio, Nolt said. But that was more common with the older generation of Amish. It is much less common in the younger generations, he said.
Only 8% of the Amish population are willing to get a coronavirus vaccine, according to a study conducted by Dr. Ethan Scott, pediatrician at the New Leaf Center Clinic for Special Children in Eaton, Ohio.
The percentage is likely the same or close for other plain communities, Nolt said.
The Amish don’t trust modern medicine and are against government involvement in their lives, Anderson said. They also view the pandemic as an English or city problem.
However, it’s not just an urban problem. State health data show that coronavirus infection incident rates and death incident rates are higher in Pennsylvania’s rural communities than in its urban communities.
Nolt said the Amish also believe in divine providence—that God is in control and that healing is his choice.
Health experts say the vaccines are safe. But the Amish and other plain communities still are more likely to base their healthcare decisions on social patterns and information gathered from their family and their local community.
“They trust the advice they get from each other as opposed to trusting outside sources,” Anderson said. “They take comfort in knowing other people in their group share a common opinion about the vaccine.”
Nolt said he hasn’t heard of anyone in the Amish communities in the Lancaster area getting the vaccine yet.