Face Mask Policy Changed From “Optional” To “Strongly Encouraged”
By Dan Clawson and Melet Whinston
(Melet Whinston, MD, is a family practitioner, and worked with King County Public Health during the first couple years of the pandemic as Medical Director in the Department of Community and Human Services, advising the Behavioral Health Division on COVID. Dan Clawson is the current President of the St. Andrew Board of Deacons, and has worked with the Outbreak Task Force on improving air quality at the church as a strategy to prevent the spread of COVID.)
The Outbreak Task Force, chaired by Teresa Platin, met via Zoom on Tuesday, May 10th to consider responses to the highly transmissible BA.2 Omicron variant. It was decided to move from a “masks optional” policy to a “masks strongly encouraged” policy , and to develop changes in worship procedures to better protect worshippers during this surge. Scott and Deacons will work collaboratively with vulnerable individuals to help them decide for themselves when it is advisable to attend services, and to assist all worshippers in effectively using face masks while at church.
Melet outlined the current facts that she finds very concerning. In places where precautions have been lifted, in particular masks, COVID cases have surged. High quality face masks, fitting properly and worn consistently and correctly, are very effective at preventing COVID transmission. Long COVID is emerging as a common condition with unknown and often serious consequences, even in young and healthy people. The current variant is infecting fully vaccinated and double boosted persons, although the vaccines do reduce the severity of symptoms. Guidance from the CDC and state and local agencies has often lagged behind the developing medical science.
Scott pointed out the very real need for worshippers to connect with worship leaders and the difficulty that face masks cause. Even the most vulnerable individuals have an emotional and spiritual need to be physically present at services to the extent it is reasonably safe. He will be looking at possible changes in the positioning of worship leaders and seating to put more distance between unmasked speakers and congregants while masks are kept on while not speaking.
Dan expressed serious concerns with the risks for older and/or disabled worshippers with underlying health conditions that make them much more vulnerable to COVID infection. Some have shown obvious difficulty properly wearing masks during services, and might benefit from having helpers sit by them to assist. Deacons and others could meet those entering the building with masks, and assist worshippers in wearing them properly. Possible involvement will be discussed at the monthly Deacons’ meeting this coming Sunday.
He expects it could take some weeks to achieve a level of voluntary mask wearing that will effectively reduce potentially virus-carrying particles in the sanctuary and other areas to a reasonably safe level. Until then, it may be advisable for some vulnerable individuals to participate in worship through the live stream, while the pastor and deacons reach out to them by phone or visits. Whether to attend worship is a decision that each individual should make in consultation with their own health care providers. Those who may be experiencing diminished mental capacity could need particular attention, possibly including consultation with their families and friends.
St. Andrew has applied for a free air quality evaluation provided by King County Health. Dan will be reporting back to the Task Force on that and the feasibility of HEPA air purifiers, germicidal ultraviolet light (“GUV”), and MERV-13 rated filters for the HVAC system. The goal is to improve air quality to the point where masks are not necessary except for the most vulnerable.