COVID-19 risk management for churches update

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Here’s my latest update on what we are seeing regarding the data at the moment. We’ve recently seen a substantial fall in COVID cases across the UK reflecting falls in daily reported cases in both Scotland and England. However, over the weekend we saw growth in week on week cases. Here’s the chart plotting average new case numbers by reporting date.

And this chart shows how both the daily case numbers and the rolling 7 day numbers have been either increasing or decreasing.

Now part of that week on week growth we saw on Sunday may reflect that there were 0 Scottish cases reported on Thursday 16th and so the cases for that day have been added in to the weekend numbers resulting in some artificial inflation. If so, then the increases may prove a one off and we may see cases declining again.

However, it is worth noting two things. First that the daily change in 7 day average cases has also moved to growth. This probably is the first indicator of a change in trends as the rolling average should smooth out any disruption caused by the Scottish non-reporting date.

Secondly, we saw England’s fall in case numbers begin to slow towards the end of last week and then an increase on Sunday there as well.

As the bulk of UK cases come from England, this is likely to have the biggest impact on overall UK trends. It’s too early to see if this is a blip, a reversion to growth into a winter wave or a third possibility which a number of people have suggested where we see mini waves, or cycles of 2 weeks growth followed by 2 weeks shrinking. The latter would reflect a situation where the country is moving from Epidemic to endemic and where potential surges in cases are contained by modifications to behaviour including people voluntarily adopting NPIs and a number of people having to test and self isolate due to contact tracing.

In terms of hospitalisations, I’m continuing to project a further increase followed by a significant decline in admissions over the next few weeks. However, remember that the medium picture doesn’t look so great based on the models recently produced reflecting the potential impact of closer contact through the winter and some vaccine effiacy waning.

The actual admissions line on my graph is dropping back down towards the projected line here. That reflects a reduction in the admissions to cases percentage ratio.

This also has implications for our projection too. I suspect that the ratio has reduced as recent case numbers have been driven by testing amongst those returning to school. If case numbers are currently primarily among the young then we may expect to see fewer admissions.

For churches, I suspect that what we are likely to see over coming weeks is that the continuing lowish numbers that remain well below some of the horror projections will encourage people to continue to return to in person meeting. There are still though a significant number of people who remain cautious and this is reflected in wider society with the level of social contact still lower than pre-pandemic. The ultra-cautious will remain particularly wary given recent media reports of high projections for autumn/winter case and hospital numbers.

The other thing to consider is how those returning will respond to crowds. We knew pre-pandemic that when a church gathering approached about 80% of capacity (averaged over time), that growth would plateau because people would come on one Sunday and see the building rather full so stay away the following week.

We need to be alert to this pattern arising as people return to church, however the true capacity of our meetings is somewhat lower. You will get a good feel locally bu I suspect we are somewhere between 50-70% at the moment. This will change over time. However, be aware that some people will turn up on a busy Sunday and think twice before coming out the following week.

My advice therefore is two-fold here. First of all, we need to take time pastorally to follow up with those returning. This may be through 1-1 conversations or surveys of church members. Ask them how they felt about things.

Secondly, I still believe that a lot of churches will find that they benefit from introducing or re-introducing additional congregations to re-assure and encourage the cautious that they will be able to attend safely.

It’s worth remembering too that those who are cautiously returning now are probably going to be the critical factor in whether others return. They’ll either go home after church and then report back to friends that it was safe and good, so encouraging them to come with them the following week, or they will tell others that they were put off and won’t be making a repeat visit for a while.

Keeping the conversation open is therefore vital. I think this is a good thing because it encourages pastors and elders to bre in regular contact with the church family. There are also discipleship opportunities as we model putting the needs of others first and as we help people to face their fears Biblically.

I hope you are finding these updates helpful. I’m opening up the comments here so that you can share your own experiences, and ask questions (this provides helpful feedback too for future updates.

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