Faith communities and COVID-19: What you need to know

November 11, 2020

By: Christa Meland

“We’re at a very disturbing and dangerous place right now, and we need everyone to take COVID seriously.”
That’s the key message that epidemiologist Kris Ehresmann—director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control Division at the Minnesota Department of Health—shared with close to 550 Minnesota faith leaders at a webinar on Monday. Approximately 50 participants were United Methodist clergy. (View webinar PowerPoint.)
Over a recent three-day period, more than 13,000 COVID-19 cases were reported in Minnesota—a total that in previous months had taken multiple weeks to reach—and the number of COVID-19 cases has doubled since the end of September.
“I’d like to admonish you to continue to use your influence for good,” Ehresmann told attendees.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz echoed that sentiment while announcing some additional restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus: Although there are no changes to wedding and funeral ceremonies, there will soon be new limitations for wedding and funeral receptions. Beginning Nov. 13, receptions must end by 10 p.m. and may not take place between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Beginning Nov. 27, receptions are limited to 50 people. And beginning Dec. 11, receptions are limited to 25 people.
Some of the alarming numbers shared at Monday’s webinar (all of these are underestimates because they only count people who reported having been to a faith-based service):

  Total cases to date Outbreaks:
June 1-Sept. 30
Oct. 1-30
Increase in outbreaks in month of Oct.
Worship services 200 21 9 42%
Funerals 174 14 6 43%
Weddings 851 52 44 85%
*Note: Cases refer to people who reported attending a worship service, funeral, or wedding in the days prior to testing positive for COVID-19. Outbreaks refer to instances when COVID-19 transmission occurred at a worship service, funeral, or wedding.

Ehresmann said one factor people must consider in making decisions about gatherings is that a single case can have an exponential impact in terms of transmission. If one infected person transmits the virus to three other people, within four generations of the spread, that number could rise to 71.
When there is an outbreak linked with a faith community (meaning someone who contracted COVID-19 named a house of worship as a place where they spent time in the days prior to their positive test result), local or state public health officials contact church leaders to:
• Explain the nature of the outbreak or concern
• Ask about your COVID-19 preparedness plan
• Discuss your practices, behaviors, and/or challenges
• Request assistance as needed (resources, information, references for further follow-up, etc.)
Ehresmann and Marge Higgins, a medial social worker for the Minnesota Department of Health, underscored that anytime we gather with others, we’re risking exposure. “The only way to be absolutely safe is to stay home,” said Ehresmann.
Both speakers recommended virtual gatherings and very small in-person gatherings only, and Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough recently turned the dial on the conference’s phased re-gathering plan back to orange and asked Minnesota United Methodist churches to limit in-person gatherings to 10 people or fewer while wearing masks and social distancing.
Monday’s speakers told congregational leaders that if they do choose to meet for in-person worship, they should significantly limit attendance, ensure everyone is wearing a mask (and if someone can’t because of a health condition, you might accommodate them by asking them to participate remotely or from another room in the church), ensure families are at least six feet apart, and do not have congregational singing (humming along softly is one possible alternative).
They also advised attendees to postpone holiday gatherings or have virtual ones. If you must gather, have no more than three households together (maximum 10 people total), sit six feet apart, and wear masks the whole time.
Ehresmann, who is herself a person of faith, said the scripture that speaks to her most in this season is Matthew 22: 37-39: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
As we head into winter, she suggested the best way we can love our neighbor is by masking, social distancing, and avoiding large gatherings. She also pointed out that communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, not only in the number of cases but also in their severity.
“We need to think about populations at greatest risk even if it happens to not to be us,” she said.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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