12-16-21 PNC COVID-19 Update

Dear Siblings in Christ:

The song Mary sings in this week’s text from Luke is one of my favorites of the whole Bible. It pre-dated her, of course. It was an old song. It comes at a point in Luke when she’s been told that the one growing inside of her is hope for the world. She finds this old song, and it becomes a song of protest against the current time, a song of celebration, and a lullaby. Somewhere in that moment when this teenager sings, a premise becomes a promise, and the world starts to seem right before it is. Jesus is yet to be born, but hope comes right on time.

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

We’re in a strange and dangerous time of the pandemic. In one way, we have more mitigation strategies than we’ve ever had. Between vaccine, treatment, and prevention strategies, we have the opportunity to knock back COVID significantly. However, because of a combination of weaponized theology and global inequities, COVID continues to gallop around the planet. Daily deaths in the US are higher than pre-vaccine numbers (mainly among the unvaccinated). 1 out of every 100 people over 65 have died because of COVID, and these numbers are still higher in many impoverished communities and communities of color. We should be doing better than this, but millions of people have become convinced that that, somehow, COVID or vaccines or treatments are the real plague. Others simply don’t have access to vaccines because of inequitable global distribution. They’re dying in vast numbers and becoming living Petri dishes that birth new variants.

Delta continues to be deadly and, now, we hear a lot about omicron as the most recent variant of concern. One of the most important parts of the omicron story is how well South Africa discovered it and then shared the news. They modeled something very important for the world that cannot be celebrated enough. The challenge has been that receiving this word this early has meant the world hasn’t been quite sure how to react in this in-between time of uncertainty. We’re still learning more and more about omicron with information that inspires relief and fear.

The good news that’s been most frequently reported is that omicron, so far, seems to bring on more mild symptoms than previous versions of COVID for most people. So although it will still be deadly for many, the chance of dying from omicron seems to be lower than many of the other variants. That’s good news but not as good as some media reports. 

First of all, when medical professionals say something is mild, that’s saying that it doesn’t require hospitalization. However, it doesn’t mean that it won’t cause significant suffering for many or that there might not still be longer-term effects.

The other reality is that, although the symptoms may be less, omicron is significantly more contagious and spreads much easier than previous variants. Although vaccines and boosters combined are still tremendously effective, omicron is more likely to overcome the barriers that vaccines create than previous variants. Scientists are still figuring this out, but early information indicates that omicron infections double every three days. Early estimates are that omicron may be around four times more communicable than delta.

So, hypothetically (and until there’s more firm data, it’s all hypothetical), if omicron ended up being 1/4 less deadly but 4x as many people became ill, the same number of people would die of omicron as delta. Even if the symptoms of omicron end up being less severe, many more people being sick will mean that many organizations (schools, businesses, hospitals, etc.) will find their capacity significantly reduced. Early studies also indicate that the possibility of reinfection after contracting omicron is also higher than with previous variants meaning that some are likely to get ill several times.

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

All along the way, I’ve suggested that our response to COVID can’t be based on organizational timing as much as conditions. In the same way your church may decide to cancel a church picnic because of a thunderstorm or encourage people to stay home from worship because of significant ice and snow, we have to adapt to these conditions, too. One of my very first communications with all of you in February of ’20 suggested that we start to prepare for moving to online worship. I have similar suggestions now. 

If you are still online with plans for hybrid worship soon, it may be wise to put those plans on hold. If you currently are holding hybrid worship (and so many of you have been doing this so well), you may soon have to discern whether or not to move back towards wholly online worship as conditions worsen. 

And, there is no one suggesting that things aren’t going to worsen next month between the flu and a couple of COVID variants. From everything I’m reading, it makes no sense to plan on anything but a pretty rough January. We know enough about COVID that these waves are predictable now.

In the meantime, based on what we know right now, I also want to share some suggestions for your consideration if you decide to continue to gather in person. In the same way waves of COVID are predictable, what we can do to prevent transmission has also become clearer. Get vaccinated and boosted. Get tested regularly. Stay home if you’re sick. Wash your hands about five times a day. Wear a mask. 

As far as I know, almost all of the churches in our conference require masking for those who attend church activities in person. That’s awesome. It’s time to encourage folks to mask a bit better. Our cloth masks have served us well, and a well-fitting, multilayered cloth mask is still helpful. However, some masks are more helpful. It may be time to switch to an n-95 or close equivalent mask if you can. If you’re meeting in person, it’s wise to have some available at the church door. If you can share masks with folks in your community who might not afford them otherwise, that could also be helpful. Although cloth masks have made a huge difference, they tend not to filter as much or create as solid a seal as the paper n-95s.

On a related note, I’m starting to hear more from churches that are having conversations about whether or not to require people to be vaccinated before attending. It’s an important consideration, and you’ll have to decide whether this makes sense in your context based on your ability to mitigate transmission, the risks for folks in your congregation, and your member’s sense of safety. Frankly, I’m hesitant to lay this out because the suggestions at the end will not be the best practice for every congregation that meets in person. There are also some legal considerations that Heather Kimmel (General Counsel for the UCC) explains in this September article.

So with those qualifiers, here are some things to consider moving forward. Each of these considerations will contain a higher level of risk or effectiveness at different moments. Of course, every congregation is different, but here are some of the realities I considered:

  • In addition to masking, most of the churches in our conference have a (self-disclosed) high vaccination rate.
  • And, churches haven’t required vaccinations for other things, some of which create a significant risk for some vulnerable folks (the flu, for example).
  • And, churches have a responsibility to care for those who are the most vulnerable in their congregations and encourage care for those beyond their congregation. Vaccines help with that.
  • And, there are a few people who can’t be vaccinated (because of age or health reasons). There are some folks for whom the vaccines didn’t “take” because of immune system or cancer treatments. Although some of these folks may choose not to attend, many of them might need to for mental and spiritual health reasons.
  • And, there are other folks for whom participating in in-person worship is a vital part of their mental and spiritual health.

Based on these realities, I’ve been suggesting that churches require masks (worn properly and having some available at the door) and ask everyone who can be vaccinated to be vaccinated. This one distinction between “require” and “ask” walks the lines between what is enforced, what is expected, and compassion for those who are vulnerable. It is not risk-free, and it doesn’t mean that you might not need to require more later. However, combined with other precautions your congregation may take, I think this suggestion is reasonable for many congregations at this point.

One of those precautions to consider is related to singing. If you’ve been doing any masked congregational singing, I’d encourage you to put that on hold until we learn more about omicron. Singing continues to be one of the highest risk activities during the pandemic. Although they help, most masks are simply not meant for the increased pressure that comes from expelling your breath while singing. Even though masks still help, omicron looks so potentially communicable that it is probably wise to wait and learn more.

I know that some of you have taken many precautions so that your choir can sing, too. If you haven’t already purchased masks specifically designed for singing, this is a good moment to do some research about which one may work best. 

This is also a moment to consider dialing back the amount your choir might sing in worship, period, and at what point you might pause all singing for a while. I can’t quite tell you how much I dislike writing down those words, but, from everything I’m reading, it’s good advice.

I miss participating in church singing terribly. A piece of Mike trivia? My first major in college was opera. And yet, I don’t love singing more than I love all of you. These days, I sing while walking and alone a lot more than I used to. I know there will be a time when we’ll get to sing together again, and it will be glorious. Just not right now.

Sometimes, we wait for the data and then change our behavior. In this case, the early data is worrisome enough that it makes sense to change our behavior first. Nothing is risk-free, of course, but it’s important to understand the risks we’re taking. We appear to be moving into a high-risk season within the next month or so. With all the twists and turns of COVID, I’d rather give a big “Whew!” if newer data ends up suggesting that things aren’t that bad than an “Oh no…”

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

And yet, this Sunday, Mary sings. She sings for us. She sings to us. She sings a song of protest, hope, and a world yet to be. We may not be able to join her in singing this year, but we can be woven into the movement her song creates. We can find the melody echoing in our hearts and the harmony in our actions.

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

  • Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV) 

With hope,

Mike

——–

Rev. Mike Denton

Conference Minister of The ​Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Church of Christ

You can give to the ministries of the Pacific Northwest Conference by going to www.pncucc.org and clicking on the “Donate” button​.​

Follow me on Twitter @denton_rev

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