Dear Fellow Parishioners of St. James,
We all want to get back to church. I have been working with Rev. Anne and all the staff to help understand how we can do this safely and in a way that will prevent the joy of our reunion from resulting in very bitter fruit. We will, of course, be following the County’s guidelines for religious organizations, but in all the decisions about how we implement those guidelines, we want to err on the side of safety. I am not in any way trying to supersede public health guidance. I am rather reading all the original research so we understand why certain actions are recommended or discouraged and looking for ways in which we can minimize our risk.
When the pandemic began, we knew very little about this specific virus and our public health officials relied on guidance developed over years of studying other viruses that cause respiratory infections. The research that has been done over the last few months about the transmission of the novel corona virus in these pandemic conditions have provided much more specific information. These findings provide important insights in the primary modes of transmission and actions that we can take to reduce our risk.
Looking at how and where people have become infected, researchers have been able to pinpoint the riskiest types of behavior. While many modes of transmission are still thought possible, it is clear that the most common mode of transmission is breathing in air that a sick person has breathed out. Early on, the focus was on “large droplets” – the type of visible moisture expelled as you sneeze or cough – and the ability of the virus to survive on surfaces. We all spent more time washing our hands and scrubbing down anything that came into our houses than I could ever have imagined before this pandemic. But just breathing or speaking produces aerosols – much smaller particles that can stay in the air and drift beyond 6 feet – and the research is showing that these are very important in the transmission of the virus. The research also shows that the amount of virus you breathe in makes a difference. The longer you are exposed, the more likely you are to get sick.
This also tells us ways to reduce our risk. We need to limit sharing indoor space with others, keep our distance, limit singing and all wear masks. These four things will dramatically reduce our chances of getting sick.
Why masks? Wearing a mask does 2 things – it filters the air coming into your lungs and traps the droplets and aerosols coming out of your lungs. The medical use of masks focuses on the first factor, based on the assumption that the mask wearer is a medical professional and probably not the contagious person in the interaction. Cloth masks do reduce the amount of virus you receive but not nearly enough to be adequate protection to a medical professional. And so, early on, we heard messages that masks wouldn’t help.
Now that we understand the important role of aerosols in transmitting the virus, we see that the importance of masks is in the second function, trapping the droplets and aerosols that the wearer is emitting. Not only does the mask reduce the forward projection of the aerosols, but by trapping them in a small area, the masks forces the aerosols to condense into larger droplets that then drop out of the air. Think of the way your glasses fog up wearing a mask. That is the moisture condensing and pulling the virus out of the air.
A study from the National Academy of Sciences showed that the rate of new cases dropped in every jurisdiction that mandated public mask wearing. But for masks to work, it cannot be a personal preference, or only when you are sick. It looks like up to half of transmissions are occurring when the contagious person is presymptomatic – in the few days before they know they are sick. We need everyone wearing masks, just like we wear seatbelts every day and not just on the days we are going to have an accident. Personally, I wear a mask whenever interacting with people outside my immediate family, an expression of my care and concern for my community. I also will not enter a building where I see more than one person not wearing a mask. That is what I do to keep myself safe.
Why keep our distance? You are more likely to get sick when you breathe in more of the virus. Six feet is the distance that a large droplet produced by coughing will travel. Aerosols can travel farther – one of the worst super-spreader events (where many people were infected by one contagious person) was a choir where everyone stayed 6 feet apart. The farther apart you stand, the less virus you receive, but 6 feet is not a magic number. Someone walking quickly past you 3 feet away will give you much less total exposure than a person talking to you for an hour at a distance of 7 feet. So each foot of distance reduces your risk.
Why limit singing? The more aerosols with the virus that you breathe in , the more likely you are to get sick. You produce some number of aerosols just by breathing. You produce 10x as many when you speak. You produce hundreds of times more when you sing. Even worse, a trained singer is emphasizing their diction, especially consonants, which produces more aerosols, and breathing deeply, taking in more of the aerosols from other people.
Why stay outside? Multiple studies are showing that transmission is much less likely outside. In a study of over 7,000 cases in China, researchers found only one instance where transmission happened outside. In indoor spaces, people have been infected even while practicing social distancing. Many of the super-spreader events happened in rooms with poor ventilation. In March, the number of cases were exploding in New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey in March, while the number of cases in California grew more slowly. March in New York means being inside almost all the time while Californians conduct more of their lives outside. Cases are exploding right now in Arizona and Texas, places where summer heat drives you indoors. Researchers think outside is safer because 1) moving air outside reduces the concentration of the virus, 2) direct sunlight weakens the virus, and 3) when outside we naturally stay farther apart.
What does this mean for St. James'? As we look to reopen, we are looking for ways to worship outside, provide music without a choir, and provide fellowship without physical contact. And we will require masks because they are the best way to show our love for each other during the pandemic.
In the love of Christ,