Facing questions Monday over the decision to hold a recent vaccine drive at an Iglesia La Luz del Mundo, an outpost of the global megachurch whose leader is jailed on rape and sex trafficking charges, Los Angeles County leaders say they’re simply trying to reach as many people in need of shots as possible.
Naasón Joaquín García, known by the church’s followers as “the apostle,” is set to go to trial Sept. 27 on a litany of sex abuse charges alleging he groomed young girls from the congregation and committed sex crimes against five women and girls. He remains behind bars on $90 million bail.
Last year, LAist reported he was still running the church — which has million of congregants worldwide — from inside his jail cell.
But when a mobile vaccination clinic was recently set up at the Mexico-based church’s location at 112 N. Arizona Ave. in East Los Angeles, it allowed public health officials to quickly expand their outreach.
A third of the congregation signed up, and 300 people were vaccinated, said county public health Director Barbara Ferrer.
“This is about vaccinating the people who live in our communities,” she said. “This partnership is really a partnership with the people of East L.A. That’s what this was.”
L.A. County isn’t the only jurisdiction to distribute vaccines at one of the megachurch’s locations — a center is set up at the Iglesia La Luz del Mundo in Peoria, Illinois, and WCVB in Boston reported a mobile clinic was hosted at an outpost in East Boston earlier this month.
Ferrer said it’s important for public health officials to meet people where they are — and to not pass judgement.
“We need to make sure that in our partnerships, people aren’t feeling like we’re making statements about neither our religious beliefs nor our political beliefs,” Ferrer said.
The Iglesia La Luz del Mundo in East L.A. is among at least 230 congregations partnering with L.A. County to distribute vaccines in ZIP codes with high rates of poverty. Ferrer said county officials work with community partners to determine where to best place the pop-ups to reach the most people.
L.A. County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis said she doesn’t remember seeing Iglesia La Luz del Mundo on any list of locations suggested by her office, but she said hosting a clinic there was the right thing to do.
“I will say one thing for sure is that we do need to have more people from East L.A. being vaccinated. And I think that’s really the priority,” she said.
However, Solis added that her office would “take note” of the clinic.
“I certainly don’t want to send mixed messages,” she said.
So far, nearly 30,000 vaccine doses have been given out through partnerships with faith-based organizations, according to the public health director.
“That’s more than twice what we projected this effort could deliver back in March, and we’re on track now to deliver more than 100,000 vaccines through our faith-based community partners,” she said.
Another 111 pop-up vaccine clinics are scheduled around the county this week.
While still trying to reach as many people as possible for first shots, health officials are also encouraging those still in need of a second dose to go through with it. About 18% of L.A. County residents are overdue for their second dose, officials said Monday.
And those who still need their first shot can now get one without an appointment, with several L.A. County locations accepting walk-ups through at least Thursday.