Hillsong founder says COVID-19 vaccine is a ‘personal decision’ after church member dies

Hillsong Church’s Global Senior Pastor Brian Houston said many members of his international church are fully vaccinated after one member refused to get his shot and later died. 

"Many of our pastors, staff, and congregation are fully vaccinated and more will be when vaccines become available to them in their countries," posted on his Instagram page earlier this week. 

Stephen Harmon, 34,  died on Wednesday at Corona Regional Medical Center, about an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles, after previously mocking the vaccine.

"I got 99 problems but a vax ain’t one," he said in a tweet last month. On July 8, he posted: "Biden’s door to door vaccine ‘surveyors’ really should be called JaCovid Witnesses. #keepmovingdork."

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"Stephen’s thoughts on vaccines were his own. They do not represent the views and thoughts of Hillsong Church," Houston also posted on social media.

But Houston also paid tribute to Harmon.

"He was one of the most generous people I know and he had so much in front of him," Houston wrote. "He would always turn up to our grandkids soccer games and he will be missed by so many. RIP."

Harmon also posted photos of himself in his hospital bed, wrote that he had pneumonia and critically low oxygen levels and was going to be intubated. In a tweet Wednesday, Harmon wrote: "Don’t know when I’ll wake up, please pray," KCBS-TV reported.

Three days before his death, Harmon tweeted: "If you don’t have faith that God can heal me over your stupid ventilator then keep the Hell out of my ICU room, there’s no room in here for fear or lack of faith!"

Harmon’s death was "unbelievably demoralizing," Dr. Oren Friedman, who treats COVID-19 patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told KCBS-TV. He said the number of COVID-19 admissions had increased tenfold.

"Virtually every single person that is getting sick enough to be admitted to the hospital has not been vaccinated," Friedman said.

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California has seen escalating numbers of COVID-19 infections, led by the highly transmissible delta variant that has proliferated since the state fully reopened the economy last month. The vast majority of new cases are among unvaccinated people, and health officials have pleaded for people to get the shots.

On Friday, the state Department of Public Health reported nearly 8,000 new cases a day earlier and the testing positivity rate over seven days had jumped to more than 5% after dipping below 1% only a few weeks ago.

Los Angeles County, which has about a fourth of the state’s population, reported more than 3,000 new cases for the first time since February. There were 655 people with COVID-19 in hospitals, a jump of more than 200 people in a week, according to county figures.

"As a church, our focus is on the spiritual well-being of the people in each of our local communities. On any medical issue, we strongly encourage those in our church to follow the guidance of their doctors," Houston said in a statement to KCBS-TV. "While many of our staff, leadership and congregation have already received the COVID-19 vaccine, we recognize this is a personal decision for each individual to make with the counsel of medical professionals."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.