Omicron/Delta and guidance for church
Some really practical advice
I wanted to help give some guidance for you pastors/church leaders asking what to do with this upcoming winter surge. I really wish I could say that the pandemic is over. But, sadly is certainly is not. So, here’s some practical steps as we continue on during the Advent/holiday season. (For those of you that are new here, welcome! I am an evangelical pastor’s wife and an epidemiologist. So, I often write from the perspective of the Christian faith - not to proselytize but help inform. I’ll get back to the science next!)
Some things to keep in mind:
Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are steeply increasing. Yuk, friends. You can read about the details in this post. 90% of US counties are in substantial/high community spread. That is a 25% increased change in just a few weeks. This highlights just how quickly this winter surge is going up throughout the country.
60% of the population is considered fully vaccinated - and, only 38% of people over 50 years are boosted. This is not good with Omicron particularly. Early evidence shows that boosters are STRONG protection against all variants - especially against Omicron and the risk of hospitalization/death among vulnerable populations. The main takeawway is BOOSTERS PROVIDE THE PROTECTION AGAINST OMICRON. Don’t miss that. You need a booster.
Natural immunity is not enough. Go here to see why.
Omicron is here in the US. We need to assume it’s nearly everywhere at this point because we simply do not have the surveillance systems necessary to catch Omicron as it occurs. So, there’s delays in detection. Early evidence also shows that Omicron has more breakthrough cases - although those can be mild in healthy individuals, they pose a risk of transmission to vulnerable populations - think elderdly populations, immunocompromised persons/children, etc.
So, what does this mean for church?
Masks need to be mandatory any time you are and your congregants are in the building. All the time. COVID is majorly airborne - so, it does no good to take the masks off when congregants sit in their seats. At this point in the pandemic and what we know about COVID being airborne, it’s irresponsible to be mask-optional if you are indoors - especially with Delta AND Omicron circulating now. It is airborne. This is where science and faith can beautifully inform one another in wisdom and deed. Like James talked about in the Bible.
What about singing? Keep those masks on while singing. I would advise that include those leading congregational singing. Our church has a beautiful choir that is masked and distanced. And, makes gorgeous music every Sunday (evidenced by me crying to every.single.liturgy and hymn). =)
The exception to masking is someone at the pulpit. I feel comfortable being at a church where everyone is masked except the speaker at the front. Our pastor takes her masks off when she goes to the pulpit and puts it back on when she sits back down. If multiple people come up to do announcements or read a liturgy, they take their masks off too. This means that only 1-2 people in the sanctuary are unmasked during the whole service. I feel comfortable with that.
What about plays, cantatas, performances, etc? Again, keep those masks on - including and especially the singers! Many of us epidemiologists think we are about to see more breakthrough cases with Omicron and masks and vaccines continue to be our best protection. We know singing is high-risk. So make a joyful noise and don’t spew the hallelujahs all over the rest of the church.
What if my church has a high vaccination rate? Hall-e-lu-yer, y’all! Well done! But, masks still need to stay on for now through this winter surge. There are no signs of this surge platueauing yet - so, rejoice and make a holy noise with those gorgeous, gracious masks.
Who do we need to keep in mind? As always, the vulnerable. We know that vaccines work well to keep people out of the hospitals. But, my ER and ICU friends are telling me they are seeing immunocompromised patients land in the hospital and are VERY sick. These are cancer patients, transplant patients, children with immunocompromised conditions that are fully vaccinated. But, their body’s just do not mount the response needed to protect them. THAT IS NOW OUR JOB. Love of these neighbors means I get fully vaccinated + boosted and continue wearing my masks in indoor settings.
What if I’m high risk and go to a church that does not promote masks or live in a place with low vaccination rates? I would advise to stay home and watch online. I know this is frustrating because we have been in this pandemic for so long. And, the high-risk groups continue to be un-thought of and left behind. I’m just so sorry for that, especially in church settings. I would not chance it for you or a family member (including children) that are high-risk. It’s also fine to find another church. That’s for another post to talk about that. But, there are thousands of churches doing the right thing and have been for a long time. Leaving church is hard. But, it’s also ok to do. You can read about my experience here if you need some encouragement. We have found some beautiful churches that are full of faith and love through their COVID protocols and have welcomed us in. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to sit with similialy minded people in old, old liturgical spaces with solidarity of love-thy-neighbor.
In general, pull back everyone. Put the masks back on. Pastors, promote love-of-neighbor from the pulpit through self-less acts of vaccines and masks. If you need help verbalizing that in your sermons, I’ve written about that here and here. If you need help with reframing masks, you can go here and here.
Happy holidays, friends. This will not last forever. But it is here now. The season of Advent is one of longing and hope. Despair and waiting. Confusion and joy. Upside down kingdoms (think the angels appearing to the shepherds instead of the kings!) and quiet pondering (think Mary and Zechariah). I hope we, as the religious community, can live into that fullness of longing and hope with actions that reflect love for our neighbors. My pastor recently gave a beautiful sermon on the power of longing - she talked about the here-and-not-yet. I’m living into that and know that so many of you are doing the same, including many, many, many of you pastors making hard decisions. Please know that I’m praying for you and your partners, spouses, families, friends, churches as you continue to hold on to the mantle you’ve been given. Bless you, indeed! If you’re weary, I wrote this for you.
All data is today’s post can be found here.