I have been asked by a national physician leader to post the letter I sent some church leaders to provide medical guidance regarding church services these next 2 weeks (effective immediately as of March 14, 2020). Please use as appropriate in your communities.
Good afternoon, (INSERT CHURCH LEADER'S NAME). I write to emphasize the importance of this moment in time for our community and country as we all make wise decisions regarding infection control to combat COVID-19 and prevail. The goal is to avoid a rapid rise in cases that will overwhelm our local healthcare system from the start. The medical community is very concerned, noting U.S. numbers are tracking almost exactly with the numbers of cases seen in Italy as the virus spread. If we avoid a steep rise early on and, instead, the virus spreads over a longer period of time, the medical system will be able to keep up with the numbers of patients needing care at the same time. This is the key concept I think some people aren't grasping. The response these next 2 weeks is absolutely critical, and we are already behind (U.S. cases are already above 1,700, and the rise has been exponential, as in Italy...).
Infection control measures such as hand hygiene, covering cough/sneeze, etc. are NOT sufficient when you place people next to each other for ten minutes or longer without the recommended 6-foot social distance between them. A church service that lasts one hour would have people next to each other 6 times the amount that's been shown to increase the chances of spread via droplet (coughing or sneezing).*
Also, the virus is not only much more contagious than influenza (the "flu"), but the treatments remain experimental and available only for "compassionate use," requiring informed consent. There is also no vaccine at this time, and we likely won't have one until 2021.
The unprecedented nature of this pandemic requires decisive actions to protect communities. Truly, our safety and health are in each others' hands. This public health emergency calls for accurate information, medical expertise, prudence, sacrifice, and actions based on science, and we have the benefit of seeing what's happened in China, S. Korea, Italy, Seattle, and California. If we act decisively NOW to prevent a rapid rise of the virus in our community, my physician colleagues, nurses, and other medical professionals will not only have enough supplies and equipment to provide the care patients need but also the personnel to do so. The rapid rise has the unfortunate consequence of also infecting more medical professionals, leading to staffing problems. Minimizing exposure to clergy is also essential so they may continue to care for their congregations, communities, and families.
A medical crisis needs medical interventions, and social distancing beginning NOW is the next step. Please don't allow our churches to threaten the health and well-being of our congregations and communities. I'm not suggesting cancelling services for 6 months. As an experienced physician with a background in infection control, I urge churches to begin by cancelling services today and tomorrow (March 14 and 15, 2020), this week, and next week, reassessing after that based on trends in the community and country, and expert recommendations from the medical community.
Thank you for the opportunity to communicate the essential medical perspective during this crisis. I believe it is possible to slow down spread of this virus, but only if we all act wisely, together.
Amaryllis Sánchez Wohlever, MD
Board-certified family physician
Physician Coach and Patient Advocate
Author, Recapturing Joy in Medicine
P.S. Instituting necessary infection control measures such as avoiding handshakes for now does not mean we stop expressing our love and affection for people. It simply gives us the opportunity to find creative ways to do so! Social distancing does not mean we isolate from others. We can stay connected with family and friends in different ways, leveraging technology and reaching out to our neighbors frequently, especially the elderly and those who live alone. Stay connected!