In late March 2021 Jan Fischer Bachman interviewed Dr. Kathryn Jacobsen for MESSENGER. A professor of epidemiology and global health at George Mason University, Jacobsen has provided technical expertise to the World Health Organization and other groups. Her research portfolio includes analyses of emerging infectious diseases, and she frequently provides health and medical commentary for print and television media. She is a member of Oakton Church of the Brethren in Vienna, Va.
It has been more than a year since the first COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were issued, and many congregations are still meeting virtually. When is the pandemic going to be over?
Based on current trends, most epidemiologists expect that most communities in the United States will be back to normal—or at least mostly normal—by the time the next school year begins in August or September 2021. That is good news after a long year apart!
How can a congregation know when it’s safe to meet in person?
The decision to pause in-person meetings a year ago was an easy one for many congregations, especially in places where state and local governments put strict restrictions on how many people could gather in one place.
It is much harder to know when to start easing back into our old routines. Those decisions will need to be based on local circumstances, because one county might have a high rate of local transmission even if neighboring counties have low rates. The CDC’s COVID data tracker (https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#county-view) assigns each county to one of four transmission levels: high, substantial, moderate, or low.
The CDC’s recommendations for churches are in the process of being updated, but for now the general advice is that indoor in-person events should not resume when the transmission level in the county or counties that a congregation serves is high or substantial. If the level is moderate, small group meetings may be acceptable as long as there is good ventilation, everyone wears masks, and distance is maintained. If the level is low, congregations can begin inviting more people to gather, as long as they continue to follow state and local health department guidelines. Most places in the United States are still at high or substantial transmission levels, but a growing number now have moderate or low levels.
A lot of congregations already are meeting indoors or are getting ready to resume indoor worship services soon. What can they do to reduce the risk of transmission?
Coronavirus is a respiratory infection, so the most important prevention methods are ones that reduce the risk of breathing in viral particles.
One set of actions is “behavioral,” like congregations encouraging everyone to wear a mask or other face covering, maintain distance from other households, minimize indoor time, and stay home if sick.
Another set of actions is “environmental,” which means having a plan for how each room and hallway will be used, ventilated, and cleaned. For example, if a room has windows and doors on multiple walls, opening them can enable cross-ventilation. In other spaces, fans and filters may be useful for reducing risk. The EPA provides guidance about indoor air and coronavirus that can be used to make a site-specific plan (www.epa.gov/coronavirus).
It is good to disinfect high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, handrails, and faucet handles regularly, but “deep cleaning” is no longer considered to be critical for coronavirus prevention because surface contamination is not the primary way the virus is transmitted.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just meet outdoors?
If singing together and eating together are important parts of congregational life—and they are for most Brethren!—outdoor events are the best option for now. As warmer weather arrives this spring, more congregations will have the option of gathering outside. A few more months of being careful will help our communities achieve low transmission rates, and that should allow indoor gatherings to be safe for almost everyone by the time cooler weather returns in the fall.
Do we need to worry about new variants of coronavirus?
The pandemic has taught us to expect the unexpected, but thus far the vaccines are reasonably protective against new variants.
Is vaccination the main reason the infection rates are decreasing in our country?
The number of new infections per week has been decreasing across most of the US since the peaks in December and January, and vaccination is definitely playing a role in that improvement. However, since most Americans are not yet vaccinated, we are not yet to a stage when we can assume that transmission rates will continue to decrease if we stop the behavioral and environmental prevention methods we’re using now. In some states and counties that have lifted restrictions on indoor gatherings, transmission rates have plateaued or even risen.
I’ve heard people say that all churches should be open now that a vaccine is available. What do you think?
Decisions about when to restart indoor meetings should prioritize the health and wellbeing of church staff and others who are expected to be present once in-person events resume.
It is amazing that several safe and effective vaccines were able to be developed, tested, approved, and manufactured so quickly. However, many people are not yet eligible for a COVID vaccine, and many adults who are eligible have not yet been able to schedule vaccination appointments because the demand for vaccines is currently much greater than the number of available doses. The distribution process is improving after a slow start, but some pastors and other church leaders will not be able to get an appointment before summer.
Do churches need to stay online until children are vaccinated?
The FDA already approved COVID vaccines for older teens, and several ongoing clinical trials are testing the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines in children and younger adolescents. If those studies have favorable results, the FDA may approve younger age groups for vaccination this summer.
Being able to vaccinate more community members will help lower community transmission rates, and lower transmission rates will help protect unvaccinated community members—including children—as schools, businesses, community organizations, and churches reopen. Some families with unvaccinated children may opt to limit in-person activities until community transmission rates are very low, so congregations should be thinking about how to enable all of their members to remain active participants as in-person church activities start up again.
It sounds like you are recommending that congregations plan for “hybrid” experiences that allow people to participate in person or online.
Yes, and we can choose to see that as a good thing rather than a burden. Online worship services, Bible studies, committee meetings, and other activities were challenging for a lot of church members, especially those who aren’t used to using computers and those who don’t have internet access at home. But they also made church events more accessible to many people with disabilities as well as those with variable work schedules, caregiving responsibilities, and other barriers to full inclusion in church life.
Every congregation should be having conversations about how to support accessibility and inclusion during the transition back to in-person activities and in the post-pandemic years.
Any final word of advice?
Pandemics tend to start fast but end slowly. The coming months of transition and healing will require continued patience and gentleness, but it is a joy that we can begin planning for a return to normal human interactions.