Our Ongoing Response to the COVID–19 Crisis (Monday, March 16)

Dear Church Family,

The deacons and I met yesterday afternoon to discuss how we as a church will continue to address the threat of COVID–19. COVID–19 (which stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019) is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, known as SARS–Co–V2. (It’s confusing, right?) We certainly don’t have all of the answers, but if you have any questions or concerns about what we are doing in light of this threat, we are here for you. My number is in the bulletin and the church directory. Call me if you have any questions.

We decided to cancel all of our scheduled services and activities for next Sunday and Wednesday (the week of 3/22) in addition to those of this week. With Robertson County schools being out at least through March 31, we will follow our policy of not having Awana when classes are canceled. We will reassess the unfolding situation next Sunday, and then we’ll communicate what our plans will be moving forward. We want to keep the lines of communication open. The deacons and I are here for you to help with any questions, concerns, or needs that you may have.

If you are wondering why we are canceling church services and activities, I would encourage you to watch the two videos below. The first video is from a British news channel. It is an interview of an Italian anaesthesist. Italy is a few weeks ahead of us in exposure to this new and deadly coronavirus. The events that are happening in Italy now should serve as a cautionary example to us, since we still have time to take action to limit the damage that this virus will do here.

The next video is an interview featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. If you are not familiar with Dr. Fauci, he is respected across the political spectrum and by every health professional that I have heard give an opinion. He is the medical point–man on Vice President Pence’s COVID-19 task force.

In the second video, I was struck by several things that Dr. Fauci said. In response to a question about hospitals being overrun, Dr. Fauci said that he doesn’t think that particular scenario will take place in the U.S. because of the steps that the government and individuals are taking to slow the spread of the virus. He encouraged Americans to concentrate on what we can each do to keep the virus from reaching catastrophic levels (avoiding crowds, working from home—if possible, etc.).

Dr. Fauci has said that data currently show that between 1–3% of people who have gotten the virus worldwide have died from it. He stressed that the mortality rate for those in high–risk groups would be significantly higher than that though. On Sunday, the U.S. Surgeon General urged hospitals and health care systems to stop performing all elective procedures to limit potential exposure to the virus and to preserve as many medical supplies as possible for the care of COVID–19 patients.

Our prayer is that this virus does not arrive in our community, but we should think about our preparation for it like we would if we were under a hurricane warning. If there were a category 5 hurricane bearing down on us (we live in a beach town for the purpose of this illustration), and all of the NOAA weather tracking shows it heading for our town, we would take every precaution to protect life. We would pray that it changes course and misses our area, but we would plan for the strong likelihood that it would affect us.

We have seen the COVID–19 pandemic wreak havoc in China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. It is now devastating much of the rest of Europe and is active in Africa and many other parts of the world. It is beginning to spread in the U.S. France is now in the process of forcing the closure of restaurants, cafés, theaters, and other gathering places to slow its progress. Spain is experiencing a significant surge in cases of the virus. Italy was slow to recognize the risk of the virus, and the government has now instituted a nation–wide order for people to stay in their homes, as medical facilities in parts of the country have been overwhelmed.

Thankfully, we are not experiencing those levels of exposure yet. Beginning last week, in earnest, our government—at the local, state, and national levels—along with the business and sports communities, began an unprecedented attempt to mitigate the exposure of Americans to the virus. Every major American sports league has shut down completely. The NCAA basketball tournament has been called off. Millions of students have been sent home, as schools and universities across the country have shut down. Billions of dollars have been lost, and millions of American’s lives (and livelihoods) have been affected.

On Sunday, the governors of Ohio and Illinois both announced that all restaurants and bars would be closed in their states. Restaurants will only be allowed to offer carryout or delivery services. The mayor of New York City announced a similar order to take effect on Tuesday. The governor of California also called on several different kinds of establishments to close until at least the end of March. The mayor of Los Angeles announced that restaurants, and some other establishments will be closed at least until the end of the month. By this morning, the governors of Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington had followed suit. Local news stations are reporting that the mayor of Nashville has ordered the closure of bars and “honky tonks” in the city.

On Sunday, the CDC issued this suggestion: “…CDC, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers (whether groups or individuals) cancel or postpone in–person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.” (Actually, as I am writing this, I just heard that today the President’s administration is urging people not to gather in groups larger than 10 people.) The CDC also encouraged the use of technology where possible, instead of in–person gatherings. We are considering our options in this area. I have an online meeting with other pastors on Wednesday morning to discuss this issue and gather ideas.

All of these measures undoubtedly seem bizarre and an overreaction to some of you. Maybe some of these reactions are indeed a step too far. Time will tell. But we need to admit that it’s easy to look through our metaphorical windows and see nothing but blue skies and lazy waves gently crashing on the beach. However, the reality is that a hurricane is coming. Now is the time to prepare for the worst that this virus could do. Maybe it will miss us entirely. Maybe we’ll only take a glancing blow. Maybe it will be downgraded from a category 5 to a category 2 storm. However, we must be prepared for the worst, not in panic, but in care and concern for the vulnerable among us.

Many Italians have taken to the Internet to warn Americans to be more proactive than they themselves were. Italy stands as a warning to us about what can happen if we don’t plan accordingly for the effects of COVID–19. One European newspaper on Saturday said, “Coronavirus victims in Italy will be denied access to intensive care if they are aged 80 or more or in poor health should pressure on beds increase, a document prepared by a crisis management unit in Turin proposes. Some patients denied intensive care will in effect be left to die, doctors fear.” I think right now the Italians would tell us that a failure to plan is planning to fail. Let’s heed their warning.

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Questions at a time like this are natural. We want to address them if we are able. Here are some of the questions that we have heard so far.

Q: Why is the church canceling things now? Why don’t we wait and see if the virus affects our community first?

A: The coronavirus has an incubation period, according to reports, of between one and 24 days. Many experts consider the risk of a person transmitting the virus to someone else more than 14 days after his or her own possible exposure to be low enough to be considered a manageable risk. That’s why you keep hearing about the 14–day quarantines for people. If a person hasn’t developed symptoms within 14 days of possible exposure, the odds of that person being an asymptomatic carrier of the virus are low enough that the person isn’t considered a significant threat to others any longer.

So, first, we want to limit the potential exposure of our most vulnerable church members by people who might have been exposed to the virus but are not showing signs of infection. We are not terribly concerned with how people in low–risk categories will handle the virus. The overwhelming majority of them should be perfectly fine. Our primary concern is with the potential life–threatening harm that carriers of the virus—who aren’t in any real danger themselves—could cause to people who are at much higher risk from infection.

Second, we want to do our part to limit the spread of the virus in general, before it gets into our community, or even keep it out of our community entirely. We know that some people will think that we are being too cautious. We understand that concern, but it is our desire to protect the most vulnerable among us. These measure are short–term and in response to a health crisis whose equal has not occurred in any of our lifetimes.

Q: The CDC says that between 12,000–61,000 Americans die from the flu each year. How is this virus worse than that?

A: COVID–19 is a completely new illness. There are still many things that are unknown about it. What we do know about it so far is that, as a percentage of those who contract COVID–19 versus the flu, it is far deadlier than the flu, especially for those in high–risk categories. It is hard to know just how much deadlier, but according to Dr. Fauci, the mortality rate seems to be between 1–3% so far. He says that the mortality rate for the flu is 0.1%. So far, COVID–19 has been between 9–29 times deadlier than the flu.   

Also, there is currently no vaccine to protect against this virus (unlike the flu), and only experimental anti-viral medications that are not approved for widespread use, so protections and treatments that people might want to use are not available (again, unlike with the flu).

Even with the high number of deaths from the flu, the incidence curve for the flu does not get so high that it overwhelms our health care system. From what we have seen around the world, if we do not contain the spread of COVID–19 in the U.S., there is a real risk that we will surpass our supplies of masks, respirators, and ventilators and the capacity of our ICUs and medical personnel.

Simply put, this is not the flu. It is far deadlier, on a case–by–case basis. But we have a real opportunity to minimize its spread and effects. The number one way to do that is to limit our exposure to groups of people. For many of our church members who are at the greatest risk from this virus, church gatherings are their primary or sole exposure to a confined space with a large number of other people on a weekly basis. We have a duty to protect them, and that is what we are trying to do.

Q: I just can’t stand the thought of missing our worship service. Why don’t we just cancel everything except our Sunday morning services?

A: We certainly understand the heart behind this question, and we asked it ourselves. However, when it comes to COVID–19, Sunday morning services actually pose the greatest risk to the greatest number of people. The likelihood of transmission of the virus increases exponentially as we add people to an enclosed space. If we only offered one thing, Sunday School classes would statistically be the safest option, because each group obviously has fewer people than our gathering for our Sunday morning worship time, and each group would fall below the current 50–person limit recommended by the CDC. (Again, the President’s administration has just revised that number down to groups larger than 10 people.) Therefore, small groups, like Sunday School classes, present far fewer chances for exposure to the virus than our Sunday morning worship service.

In the short–term, we decided to cancel all Sunday and Wednesday services and activities for yesterday through the week of the 22nd, but the deacons and I will review our options again this coming Sunday afternoon (the 22nd) for the week after that. We know that some other churches have made different decisions about when and how they will gather. Each church is unique and has different capacities and factors to consider. We are not second–guessing any other church’s decisions. It’s challenging enough to make our own.

It’s important to stress that none of us wants to cancel any church gathering or event. We have made the decision to do so because we feel that if we did not, we would be putting people’s lives in danger. We have prayed for wisdom in making these decisions. We have not made any of these decisions lightly nor without thoroughly discussing all of our options at length. With that said, we are always here to listen to you. If you have a particular question or concern that we haven’t addressed, give one of us a call.

Please let me add a parenthetical thought here. I have heard and seen many people suggest that this whole “pandemic” is being blown out of proportion, or that it is one political party’s attempt to cripple the economy to take power away from another political party, etc. If you had asked me my thoughts on all of this a week ago, I would have been far more dismissive of COVID–19 and its dangers than I am today. When I see what is happening in countries that are two or three weeks ahead of us in terms of exposure, it gets my attention. When I consider that our president (who is not one to apologize, admit error, or publicly change his mind) made a 180º turn last week on his position toward the virus, it caught my attention.

We know that God is on his throne. We know that God is in control. We trust in God’s providential care in our lives. We know that God is sovereign over all, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t lock our doors. We still look both ways before crossing the street. We still wear our seat belts. We still take precautions to protect ourselves and others who are all made in the image of God. When it comes to this new coronavirus, we are in uncharted waters. We’re not all going to agree on how deep or cold those waters are, but none of us should be jumping in without a life preserver, and we certainly shouldn’t be pushing in people who can’t swim. (Q: Why do all of this guy’s illustrations seem to revolve around water? A: That’s a good question. I’m not really sure, but it does seem odd, now that you point it out.)

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Lastly, if you are in a high–risk group and you need something, please call one of us. We are beginning to set aside some things that are hard to find, like bathroom tissue, facial tissue, and some food staples—not to hoard them, but—to be able to provide them to someone who is in need. If you have a specific need, or if you’d like to help meet needs, please let one of us know. If you know of someone to whom we could reach out with food or supplies, let us know. This might be a strange and difficult time, but that’s when our love for one another has the greatest opportunity to shine. The gospel hasn’t lost any of its power either, and our call to be salt and light in the world is just as strong as ever. Just as we don’t mourn like those who have no hope, we don’t panic like the world does either.

How is God calling you to respond in these uncertain days? Psalm 91:4 tells us, “He will shelter you with his wings; you will find safety under his wings. His faithfulness is like a shield or a protective wall.” Take shelter under God’s wings, and seize opportunities to offer the only message of hope and security that ultimately matters, that new, abundant, and eternal life is available through repentance and faith in Jesus. And as strange as it is to type this, one of those opportunities might come about through the offer of a roll of toilet paper.