Updated data and thoughts for church COVID risk assessments

As promised here’s an update on where I think we are in terms of COVID-19 and its impact on our return to in person church gatherings. First of all, here’s an update on the data.

The first important graph is the one showing case growth. As you can see, we saw a return to positive growth on the 4th August having seen a steady decline in cases since mid July.

Now, there is a little bit of uncertainty ahead for us. A few days ago I set out a couple of scenarios. In the best case scenario we see ongoing reduction in daily cases throughout August whilst in my worst case scenario I considered the possibility that cases could start to grow again.

Just to be clear, this isn’t a model produced with the fancy tools available to Neil Ferguson. I jsut tried to draw out two scenarios. In the first, we might see cases taking off again with a peak to match what we saw back in July during the Euros in the second we see cases falling, although the ride could be bumpy along the way. The reason for the uncertainty is that there are two forces at work now, one in the direction of falling cases the other int he direction of increasing cases.

Contributing to case reduction we have a number of factors which make it harder for COVID to spread these include

  • Over 70% of adults have now been vaccinated
  • Significant numbers of people have a level of natural immunity form having caught COVID in the past few months
  • Schools are closed for the holidays meaning young people are less likely to cause transmission among them before taking infection home.

However, pushing in the other direction are behavioural changes resulting from Stage 4 unlocking

  • As masks and social distancing are no longer compulsory we may expect a change in behaviour in shops and other venues
  • The re-opening of night clubs without restrictions provides a context for many under 30s to gather. This age group currently has a much lower level of vaccination and so transmission is more likely.

This graphic probably helps demonstrate those factors at work. Look at the red line which shows the rate of growth broken down by age.

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Look particularly at the red line showing growth rates for 20-34s. Behavioural changes such as returning to mass sports events or clubs re-opening are likely to see greater growth in cases among the most active and mobile age groups which then filters into other generations.

The question over the next month is about which of those forces will turn out to be the stronger (or will they turn out to cancel each other out leading to cases flatlining at around 20-30k per day?)

It’s also worth noting that my worst case scenario may be too pessimistic. See this from Stephen Seater.

Here;s a closer look at the key image

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The silver line shows the effect of behavioural adaption. So late July we were seeing the impact of things like isolation (pingdemic) and caution. A lot of that is fading now. However, the gold line is the defence that the vaccine gives which Stephen believes is putting a ceiling on how fast the virus can transmit. Stephen’s model assumes that we will see a return to growth in cases around about now but the speed of growth will be limited because more people have been vaccinated or have natural immunity and it will be short lived as that gold line continues to come down. If he is right then we are probably looking at another small peak much lower than previous ones over the next few weeks. In other words, we might see 35-40k daily cases over the next few weeks. His model and assumptions look reasonable to me and I hope he is correct.

The second thing we need to look at is hospitalisations. Over the past few days we’ve begun to see them fall.

This is good news and reflects two things. First the measure is a lag measure reflecting admissions about 10 days ago. So as I mentioned the other day, this does confirm that the fall in cases reported by the Government data site was correct. However it also reflects something else. We’ve been monitoring the % of cases that lead to admissions. Back in December/January it was up at ~9%, it fell then to ~5% in the Spring and then further to 2-3%. I think most people thought it couldn’t fall further. However current data suggests it has fallen below 2%.

That may not be permanent as vaccine efficacy wanes in the older and more vulnerable who were jabbed first but it is positive news right now. We feared the possibility of seeing up to 200k of cases per day over the summer and 3-4k of admissions or at worst case scenario ~6k per day. Instead we have seen admissions peak at under 1k per day. In other words, 25k of cases per day now is equivalent to about 5-6k of cases back before the vaccine. This is I think what is meant be learning to live with the virus.

Where does this leave us? Well, I think that it means that the risk of a significant surge in cases leading to hospitals being overwhelmed. This means that churches are at a much lower risk of being responsible for an outbreak too. So I’ve updated my risk assessment accordingly

 IDRisk DescriptionProbability
1Risk of causing COVID infection spreadLow
2Risk of invalidating insuranceLow
3Risk of breaching H&S LawLow
4Risk of increased congregation anxietyModerate
5Risk of creating a bad witness to the communityLow to moderate

You’ll need to complete your own version to take account of local data including specific risks to vulnerable members of your church, the current views of your congregation and the actual physical space in use. Note also that the subjective measures lag behind the objective ones. I think people are increasingly feeling safer but there will be some caution and anxiety lingering. Note also that I have scored “congregation anxiety” higher than “community anxiety.” This is because I suspect in a lot of churches that there will be a disproportionate mix comparable to the community with a higher number of people who are vulnerable or caring for the vulnerable meaning proportionately more are alert to ongoing risks. This will of course vary from context to context.

On the basis of this I think churches should continue with the cautious, gentle move out of restrictions. At this stage my approach would be to continue to encourage mask wearing for those entering, leaving and moving around a building but not whilst sitting. We should feel able to sing more although at the moment probably with masks encouraged for a little longer. Churches may wish to re-commence providing after service refreshments if they haven’t already but to encourage people to wear masks in the coffee queue and to make use of outdoor space to mingle and socialise where possible. Whilst any messages to those who are not yet returning should be gentle – we shouldn’t be telling people that the must attend I think it is right to be actively encouraging people to consider returning and giving in person church a try (primarily by sharing factual information with them about the measures taken and the overall level of safety).

I hope this proves helpful. Look out for another update in a few weeks time.