You can see from his slow walk and his dull eyes that Joe Gee is exhausted.
He is physically exhausted from caring for several family members in the Perth-Andover area of ââwestern New Brunswick who are infected with COVID-19.
And he’s emotionally exhausted because he thinks he can trace these infections back to a local church with a pastor who he’s been told “has discouraged people from protecting themselves” with vaccinations, masks and a social distancing.
“Different people who are related to this church have explained, they have shared with me, that this pastor used this disease as a way to test people’s faith in the Lord.”
It also makes him angry.
âFor people to say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t get angry’â¦ we all have a right to be afraid, and we really have a right to be angry.
âThe vaccines are free. Vaccines are not âpoisonsâ. â¦ You have to go get the vaccine, because if you don’t, you could experience the nightmare I am experiencing right now. “
Gee is the only person among her siblings and parents to be vaccinated. He is breaking his silence to confront what he says is widespread anti-vaccination sentiment in the Perth-Andover area, pushed by several local churches.
“It’s stupid,” he said. âIf you want to make it one thing about religion, why not tell people that the Lord has already answered our prayers by giving us brains and giving us science?
âJesus was a healer. People trusted Jesus. Why don’t they trust these doctors who have the information we need to protect us and our loved ones?
In an interview in Carlingford, the rural community where he lives outside of Perth-Andover, near the US border, Gee says he is “scared to death” of what is happening to his family.
It would be easy to sever ties with their decision not to get the vaccine, but he says he can’t.
“I love all of my family, and it’s because I love them that I feel what I feel. If if I didn’t love them, I wouldn’t care. I wouldn’t be here right now. . “
Indications of generalized infection in the community
It is impossible to measure active cases of COVID-19 around Perth-Andover. The province is refusing to ventilate the 217 active cases in Zone 3, a large health region that includes Fredericton.
But there are indications of generalized infections in this part of the area.
Three Perth-Andover schools closed for two weeks. District Superintendent David McTimoney said Wednesday the three schools had a total of 34 cases.
And the Upper River Valley Hospital in Waterville, which serves an area that also includes the towns of Woodstock and Hartland, was at 106% of capacity on Wednesday, the only Horizon Health hospital officially overcapacity at the time.
âPerth-Andover and the surrounding area are currently a hot spot for COVID cases,â Gee said.
âWe hear every day about different families and different people contracting COVID and now it has turned into ‘So-and-so lost a family member that day’ and ‘So-and-so lost a member of his family today “.
“And it seems to be gaining ground and becoming more and more common. And it’s devastating.”
Gee’s father was hospitalized last week. The same morning he spoke to CBC News this week, he called 911 to have an uncle rushed to Waterville hospital.
When he arrived there was no bed for him.
Retired insurance salesman and Perth-Andover resident Jim Pickett believes there are 60 or more cases in the area.
âIt all happens at the same time, and vaccination, we were told, is always the solution,â Pickett said. “How these people are so determined every day that they’re not going to get the shotâ¦ someone has to drop a hammer.”
Former Progressive Conservative MP Wes McLean said there was “a mixture of fear and anxiety” in the community.
“I would call it a collective sadness among people in our community about what is going on.”
He agreed that there was “a general anti-vaxx sentiment” in the region.
Gee will not name the church he says is behind the outbreak that has infected his family.
Pickett says he knows of at least three churches where pastors have preached against vaccines and other public health measures such as masks and distancing.
âMost of the unvaccinated people I find have a connection to one of the churches,â he says. “This certain Limestone Siding church, I know over 20 people who are sick or in hospital or who have died, and we’ve never been through this before.”
This church, Amazing Grace Pentecostal, was also the site of the region’s very first exhibit notification on August 29.
Since then, there have been 20 additional exposure notifications in Perth-Andover and neighboring communities.
CBC News attempted to contact Roy Dee, pastor of Amazing Grace, but he did not respond to two messages requesting an interview.
Premier Blaine Higgs said churches have played a role in the growth of cases province-wide. At first, his government resisted imposing new COVID-19 restrictions on places of worship earlier this month.
But last Friday, the province’s new emergency decree said churches must now choose between requiring proof of vaccination or running services at 50% of capacity with distancing, contact tracing lists and no chanting. Masks are mandatory with either option.
“This is a strict policy or some other strict policy,” said Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.
Everyone was masked on Tuesday as they entered the church for the funeral of Dee’s brother-in-law Donnie Moran. Moran died Sept. 23 at the age of 90 from “a brief illness”, according to his obituary.
Pickett says there are signs that some attitudes are changing.
âThere is a certain church in our town where the pastor told me a year ago that it was all wrong and stupid,â he said.
“And I noticed last week at the restaurant, he didn’t speak with the same enthusiasm because he now has a few infected people in his church.”
Gee hopes the change is real. He sleeps and eats poorly and tries to cope with the stress of monitoring his family’s health.
âI don’t know how long I’ll be able to do this,â he said. “The nurses and paramedics and doctors and all the medical staff that I know, I now understand what they’re going through.”
But he says he will use his remaining energy to loudly urge people to get vaccinated and hold religious leaders to account.
âFor so long the argument has been, ‘I don’t know anyone who has it. â¦ It’s not here, “” he said.
âBut now that it’s here, people are trying to hide it. They don’t want to talk about it. And I think a lot of it is coming from this church, telling people to shut up and ‘say nothing’. So I go out and talk about it, and I’m going to do something about it. “
He says this may include a civil lawsuit against the pastor whose anti-vaccination preaching he believes sparked the outbreak in Carlingford.
Gee also doesn’t fear backlash from the community’s devotees who don’t want him to speak out.
âIt’s the least of my worries right now. What worries me is who else this is going to kill and who else is going to get sick?
“There are going to be more people like me who are vaccinated, who are going to have to take care of the unvaccinated. I am worried about our hospitals which are full at the moment.
“So I don’t care about the flashback. If I stayed silent and said nothing at all and it continued, I’m more worried about my conscience than the flashback.”
If there is a silver liner for Gee, it is his engagement with partner Tracey Connors, which happened last Sunday at a time when the burden of COVID took hold.
He received a call at home from a woman who had seen her sister die via video call at 4:30 a.m. that morning and had seen her passionate Facebook posts.
âShe thanked me for being open, and so I fell in love after that, and realized that I couldn’t have done everything I have without my fiancÃ©e,â he says.
He proposed to Connors on the spot. She said yes.
Her vision of marriage, whenever it occurs, is simple: “May all my family be here, healthy and alive.”