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Did LDS Church statement move the needle on vaccines and masking? Yes and no.

Some witness a decided increase in the number of members following their prophet; others are still placing caveats on their leaders’ counsel.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson arrives at the priesthood session of General Conference on Saturday, April 3, 2021. Nelson and his counselors are again urging members to wear masks get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Latter-day Saints may preach and sing about following their prophet, but last week’s statement by the faith’s top leaders urging members to wear masks and get vaccinated offered a glimpse of how seriously the faithful take that mantra.

In its strongest statement yet, the governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked members to take these measures to “limit the spread” of COVID-19 and its variants. They assured believers that the available vaccines are “safe and effective.”

President Russell M. Nelson, a former heart surgeon, and his two counselors advised members to “follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.”

Though the presidency statement didn’t require that it be read aloud over the pulpit on Sunday, many Latter-day Saint bishops and stake (regional) presidents across the country and around the world did so. And many members have said on social media that the directions from their local lay leaders as well as congregational behavior shifted almost immediately.

The effect was “a pronounced, obvious change,” said Tim May of Vancouver, Wash. “Last week, we had one to two families masked. This week, every family but one was masked.”

The First Presidency’s Thursday message was read aloud, May said, along with “an aligned message from our stake president, a surgeon.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church President Russell M. Nelson receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Nelson and his counselors are again urging members to wear masks get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Other members received emails from their leaders after Thursday’s announcement and before Sunday’s services.

“In response to this prophetic direction, we ask that all of our wards and branches immediately implement this counsel,” the president of Salt Lake City’s Ensign Stake wrote in an email. “This means resuming mask-wearing and, where possible in our meetinghouses, practicing social distancing. Please communicate this message to your ward and branch members, households, those to whom you minister, and friends. We also strongly urge all our stake members to follow the First Presidency’s counsel by being vaccinated if health permits.”

In Russell Arben Fox’s Wichita, Kan., congregation, the bishop read the First Presidency letter over the pulpit and “a message from the stake president to the bishops, telling them that they were expected to lead by example. Then our bishop pointed out that everyone on the stand was wearing a mask, and said that if [anyone] was worried about the vaccine, [they shouldn’t] because he got vaccinated very early on, and he had no adverse reactions whatsoever.”

Some, including Fox, reported the number of those wearing masks shot up dramatically.

“Far more people wearing masks during sacrament meeting; not a lot (probably barely a third of the total), but that’s a big increase over previously,” Fox said. “Hardly inspiring, but I call it a win.”

The leaders’ stance “absolutely affected mask-wearing in the Olympic Park Ward in Park City,” Cole Capener wrote on Facebook. “Mask-wearing increased from less than 10% in recent weeks to over 80%.”

The caveats

Others reported that the statement was read, but followed with encouragement from local leaders to pray about masking and calling vaccinations a personal choice — points not mentioned in the First Presidency’s letter.

“My bishop … said he felt impressed to relay what the First Presidency said this week and proceeded to say they directed church members to think about it and make the right decisions for their families concerning vaccines. Some might choose to, some might not,” said Lehi resident David Kennedy. The bishop “was not wearing a mask and did not social distance.”

Still others sensed no impact from the leaders’ amped-up push.

“It didn’t seem to change a thing,” wrote Montanan Trish Murphy Hartman. “No letter was read and only visitors were wearing masks.”

Carol Lee Hawkins noted the same occurrence “from the heart of Utah County. No email. No reading over the pulpit and only 20% masks.”

In Houston, historian Benjamin Park was disappointed to see only “five out of 50 adults wearing masks in his ward this weekend, including none of the [three-member] bishopric. And no mention of the First Presidency statement.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve begin General Conference in a socially distanced seating formation on Saturday, April 3, 2021. Top church leaders are again urging members to wear masks get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Jenny Smith of Stafford, Va., was pleased to see 100% of attendees wore face covering during the Sunday sacrament meeting but bothered that “no masking is happening at our youth activities.”

The “anti-mask bishopric member in our ward is holding youth activities in his home and seems to be using the ‘public’ wording from the [First Presidency] letter to excuse the lack of masking or social distancing, as the activities are held in a ‘private’ home,” Smith said. “I don’t have a child in the youth program anymore, but the lack of consistency regarding masking is causing a lot of pain for some families in my ward.”

Debate intensifies at BYU

The church’s flagship school, Brigham Young University in Provo, has asked students to report their vaccination status before enrolling but is not requiring vaccinations.

Now faculty members have gathered more than 300 signatories, asking the school to mandate vaccinations for their protection.

Meanwhile, a day after the First Presidency’s statement, administrators at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School — Dean D. Gordon Smith and his two associate deans — sent an email to all students, saying that they share the top church leaders’ “commitment to being good global citizens and to protecting the most vulnerable members of our community — including the immunocompromised and children too young to be vaccinated.”

Thus, they are now requiring masks “in all public meetings where physical distancing is not possible,” which includes all classes and other indoor gatherings.

Further, they reiterated their expectation “that all members of our community be vaccinated before school starts.”

The university is collecting “data about the BYU community vaccination rates [to] help inform policy decisions for the upcoming semester, such as mask requirements,” spokesperson Carri Jenkins said Tuesday. “Once we have this information, details on fall semester protocol will be announced.”

The law school set its mask requirements early because new student orientation is Aug. 18, Jenkins said, while fall semester begins for the whole school Aug. 30.

In response to the recent message from the First Presidency, BYU has urged “all employees, students and guests to wear masks indoors when physical distancing is not possible,” she said, including those attending this week’s BYU Education Week.

BYU’s Marriott School of Business also sent a strongly worded message to its students after the First Presidency statement.

“President Nelson is both a world-renowned physician and a prophet,” said Brigitte C. Madrian, dean of the business school. “There is no one on this planet better qualified to offer advice on the best of action during this pandemic.”

So, in a word, students should “follow the prophet.”

Correction Aug. 19, 2:45 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Russell Arben Fox’s last name.

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