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Variant puts US churches back online

14 January 2022

Omicron prompts decision to suspend in-person worship


Drivers queue for drive-through Covid-19 testing in Sterling Heights, Michigan, US, last Friday

Drivers queue for drive-through Covid-19 testing in Sterling Heights, Michigan, US, last Friday

CHURCHES in the United States have partially returned to online services as cases of the Omicron variant surge: the US has experienced the highest number of new infections of any country this week.

The US reported 1.25 million new infections on Monday, and the number of patients in hospital with Covid has also hit an all-time high, at more than 136,000.

Many churches made the move to online services, or offered hybrid services just before Christmas. Several dioceses recommended early in the New Year that churches should move services online.

The Omicron variant spread in the US just as many churches were getting back into a normal rhythm of worship, after the closure of most churches for services in March 2020. By last November, almost all churches had returned, and were offering in-person church services, a survey of church leaders reported.

But, last week, the diocese of Southern Virginia notified its congregations that public worship should be suspended, although individual parishes could request an exception to allow worship if they agreed to follow certain protocols, including guaranteeing mask-wearing, social distancing, and contact-tracing, besides supplying figures for local rates of Covid and hospital occupancy.

“Our health system is quaking, and our health-care workers are overburdened. Breakthrough cases remind us that even the vaccinated may be vulnerable. Consequently, suspension of worship until further notice is necessary,” the statement said.

The diocese of North Carolina has also recommended moving services online. In the diocese of New York, the Bishop has urged congregations to move to hybrid worship. Masks are compulsory in all in-person services in the diocese.

The Cathedral of St John the Divine, in New York, moved all its Christmas services online, and continues to hold morning and evening prayer online.

St Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue, has continued to hold in-person services streamed online, as it has for months. Worshippers are required to wear masks and provide proof of full vaccination to attend services. Children attending also have to wear masks, the church’s Covid policy says.

In Alabama, St Stephen’s, Smith’s Station, closed to worshippers on 2 January, but reopened cautiously last week, with strict protocols. Communion was offered in one kind only, and laid out before the service to avoid unnecessary handling. “All of us want to be prudent and remain vigilant in the days to come,” the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Dr Larry Williams, said.

A similarly cautious approach was followed in St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kankakee, in Illinois, where the Rector, the Revd Shane Spellmeyer, announced the temporary closure of the church for a week. He said that other churches in Illinois had announced closures for the entire month of January, but, with precautions and the cancellation of “social hour” after worship, services resumed.

In Houston, Texas, St Stephen’s has stayed open for worship, but has limited numbers to just 30 per service, and has also limited singing during worship.

In Washington, DC, where rates of infection have been among the highest in the country, the National Cathedral’s Christmas services were made online, and the cathedral was closed to worshippers and visitors until 9 January. More than 4000 people watched the online 2 January service, according to the Chapter.

“Time and time again, this pandemic has required us to pivot quickly in order to keep our people safe, and the spike in Omicron infections in DC forced us to change our Christmas plans in less than 24 hours,” the Dean, the Very Revd Randy Hollerith, told the Episcopal News Service. “Yet, despite the whiplash, this pandemic has taught us how to be nimble and responsive, and enabled us to extend our ministry far beyond our walls.”

Dr Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser in the US, warned this week that the highly infectious Omicron variant would “find just about everybody”, but those who were not vaccinated “will bear the brunt” of it.

In the US, at least one in five eligible Americans — roughly 65 million people — are not vaccinated against Covid-19. More than 62 per cent of the population have been fully vaccinated, but only 23 per cent are fully vaccinated and boosted, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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