Positive reasons for the cautious to return to in person church

Over the past few weeks I’ve been updating readers about what we are seeing in terms of the COVID pandemic (my reporting here is UK specific). My reason for doing this is to help church leaders and trustees plan carefully in order to move increasingly towards full re-opening whilst minimising risks associated with the virus.

I believe that many, indeed most churches are seeking to re-open their physical gatherings ina responsible manner. We have seen this responsible attitude throughout the pandemic. This meant that many churches were able to have some form of in person meeting from July 2020 onwards without seeing any significant localised outbreak of COVID cases. This is because churches respected both the regulations and guidance on face masks, good hand hygiene and withholding from singing.

From what I’m hearing, most churches are continuing to show concern for what is wisest and safest at this stage of the pandemic. This means that many are encouraging attendees to wear face masks when standing, moving about and singing, to respect space and to self-isolate if they are aware that they’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID. So  I would encourage you to return to meeting if possible. It may be helpful to have a conversation with church leaders first to see what is planned and if you have specific concerns to make them aware of these.

I would also advise church leaders to be alert to what these concerns are. I know that some churches are talking about providing specific services or areas of the building to cater for those who are more cautious. Whilst well intended, this may miss the actual nature of concern that many cautious people have. Whilst a lot have specific concerns about their own health and well-being so such measures may help the vulnerable there is also a concern among many to be socially responsible. It’s not just that they want to minimise the risk of catching COVID themselves, its that they don’t want to be part of something that becomes a potential super spreader.

My second reason for encouraging the cautious to return is that I believe we are seeing positive data suggesting that the risk of serious illness and death has been much reduced through vaccines giving over 90% protection against this.

 Have a look at the chart above. What it shows is that we are seeing the % of hospital admissions relative to infections fall.  Back on the 14th December this ratio peaked at 12%. This would have potentially resulted in about 7000 patients being admitted to hospital with COVID each day around about now. Instead we are likely to see admissions peak at about 1000-1300 over the next few weeks, although if stage 4 unlocking leads to a further increase in cases that could go up again. This is because admissions are now at 2-2.5% of cases.

As I said, it is possible that cases will go up again. The big fear was that we might see a third wave peak at over 100k or even going up to 200k plus with catastrophic consequences for our health services.  The data at the moment looks reasonably positive with daily reported cases falling from 54k to ~ 30k this week.  We won’t really know the full impact of July the 19th for another week or two. However, I suspect that what are probably seeing is that day to day behaviour remains cautious so that this is not feeding into case increase yet. However, the reopening of the hospitality industry may lead to some spiking in cases at the weekend.  Like I said, we will want to watch those numbers carefully into early August before we can be sure.

Daily COVID cases

Some people are particularly cautious because they have been particularly at risk from COVID due to health frailty and compromised immune systems. Some people will find that the vaccine simply does not work for them at all or that they are unable to take it. However, it is worth remembering that the vaccine roll out programme particularly focused on the most vulnerable with the expectation that it will provide a lot of protection including for  the immunocompromised. 

This report is particularly reassuring.  It does note that:

“Reduced antibody responses have also been noted after two vaccine doses in patients with blood cancers and transplant recipients.”

And further it seems that one dose of the vaccines isn’t enough to provide much protection against infectious disease, this increases dramatically with the second dose.

“Vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic infection was only 4.0% in the immunocompromised group after one dose of either vaccine, but a second dose showed good effectiveness: 73.0% with Pfizer, 74.6% with AstraZeneca.”

Additionally, the report states that the vaccines did generate significant antibody response meaning that even if the vaccine does not prevent transmission, even after one dose it seems to provide significant levels of protection against serious disease among the clinically vulnerable.

Overall, COVID-19 vaccination generated similar antibody responses in both at-risk patients and their healthy peers. Among immunocompromised patients, however, 70% had coronavirus antibodies after one dose, versus 95% among their non-immunosuppressed counterparts. Reduced antibody levels were observed in immunocompromised patients (-68%) and those with chronic respiratory disease (-65%) after one dose.

As I stated above, there will be a number of people who won’t benefit from vaccine protection. However, this report does  suggest that there could well be significant numbers of people who have greater protection against the virus than they have been led to believe. My advise would be to get medical advise and if possible to participate in antibody testing for reassurance. However it may be that some carers and some immunocompromised who thought they would never be able to return to in person church may be able to after all. It is important that churches think carefully about how they enable those returning cautiously in this context to feel fully safe.

It is right, responsible, commendable and loving to be cautious about the return to in person church and no one should feel judged for expressing concern or exercising caution. Churches should not be seeking to compel or coerce people back when they are still veery aware about the risks form the pandemic. However, I hope that the information shared here proves helpful for those who are currently weighing up the pros and cons about going back to a physical service.