Wisconsin faith group urges congregations to slow down easing of pandemic protections

As COVID-19 cases dwindle and the federal government suggests it’s now safe for people to forego masks in much of the United States, an organization of churches in Wisconsin is urging congregations to demonstrate of caution.

“The COVID pandemic is not over. Safer protocols can be adjusted, but should not be completely abandoned,” the Wisconsin Council of Churches (WCC) states in a report released Friday which calls on churches to respond carefully to the changing conditions of the pandemic.

The council is an ecumenical organization that encompasses 21 Christian traditions and more than 2,000 congregations across the state. During the pandemic, the WCC has disseminated information to its member churches and groups of churches on topics such as safer worship practices during the pandemic and expanding access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Friday’s report was compiled after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its latest guidance on local COVID-19 risk. Along with the guidelines, the agency introduced a revised risk assessment system in local communities and encouraged the public to use these risk ratings to guide their decisions on protections such as masking.

“We were concerned at first that people would take the CDC guidelines as a clear signal and just give up,” says Reverend Dan Schultz, director of the WCC’s community health program. “We were concerned that in the rush to return to the current situation, people were overlooking the needs and concerns of people with disabilities and other vulnerable people.”

The report cites the values ​​of “community, hospitality, care and concern for the vulnerable” in Christian teaching – “which means welcoming people who are all ready to assume these [pandemic] mitigations, or not,” says Schultz.

The report also acknowledges likely differences within communities and congregations in their willingness to end protective measures such as social distancing or masks. “Take into account the needs of all, without neglecting those of disabled or vulnerable members,” he says.

In consultation with an informal network of advisers including public health practitioners, epidemiologists and other medical experts, the WCC learned “that the pandemic is not over,” Schultz said. “None of the metrics we’ve seen have fallen to the point where we could say it’s safe to just throw your mask away, ditch all your protocols, and get back to living like it was before 2020.”

The report highlights concerns from some epidemiologists that the new CDC guidelines emphasize individual judgment at the expense of protecting more vulnerable people.

These guidelines “still place much of the burden on vulnerable people to monitor the situation and take individual protective measures,” the WCC report said. “This is especially concerning because many recommendations recommend seeing a primary health care provider, which 10-15% of Americans lack.”

After the COVID-19 outbreak that began in late November and peaked in mid-January, Wisconsin cases dropped dramatically. Even so, the state has yet to return to the very low levels of early summer 2021, Schultz says. And churches are likely to include people who are more vulnerable to the virus.

“Hospitalization with COVID for people 65 and older is very, very serious,” Schultz says. “It’s very dangerous for people to get so sick. And we know that churches tend to be a little older than the general population these days. »

At the other end of the age bracket, children aged 5 to 11 are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, but they still lag behind in vaccinations compared to 12 to 18 year olds. Teenagers, in turn, have been slower than adults to get vaccinated. And children under 5 are still not eligible for vaccines.

“Churches are caring for housebound elderly people and children in Sunday school,” Schultz says. “These are exactly the people you want to protect.”

Vaccines are an important protection against COVID and a WCC priority, but they are not infallible – which is another reason the new report urges caution before shedding other forms of protection .

“People can get breakthrough COVID cases even if they’ve been vaccinated,” says Schultz; it’s not enough to assume “get everyone vaccinated and you’ll be fine – that can still be a problem”.

The WCC’s approach also reflects the work done by the council, member congregations and allied organizations in poor neighborhoods like Madison and Milwaukee.

“These people don’t have the same access to vaccines as wealthier people do,” Schultz says. “Vaccines haven’t necessarily arrived everywhere — it’s easy for people to say ‘tests are available, vaccines are available.’ That’s true, but that’s not necessarily the case statewide.

Schultz says that according to experts the council has consulted, it is not yet possible to predict when the pandemic will end.

The report cites advice from medical professionals who say additional surges are likely: “Churches should invest time and resources to plan for the short-term likelihood of another wave of COVID.

“You have to be able to think quickly when that happens,” says Schultz.

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