‘Tsunami of sickness’: Dioceses call for masks, vaccinations amid COVID-19 surges

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 11, 2021
Covid shot Flroida

Amanda Tetlak, a registered nurse, administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to Jessica Martinez at a Pinellas County vaccination event held at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Aug. 6. Photo: Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal dioceses and congregations are responding to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases across the United States, especially in Southern states with low vaccination rates, by implementing new face mask requirements at worship services and promoting vaccination campaigns.

In Louisiana, one of the states hit hardest by the coronavirus’ fast-spreading delta variant, the New Orleans-based Diocese of Louisiana started requiring worshippers to wear masks this week, partly in response to the indoor mask mandate reinstated by the governor. The state is now averaging more than 5,500 new COVID-19 cases a day, which is more than at any other time during the pandemic, according to data tracked by the New York Times.

“I have heard and read where some individuals have raised their objections to wearing masks indoors. This is disheartening,” Louisiana Bishop Morris Thompson said in an Aug. 4 message to the diocese. “The primary reason for wearing masks is to protect others. Choosing not to wear masks speaks to the absence of love for our neighbor.”

Florida is another state seeing a record number of new cases, now averaging 20,000 a day. As in Louisiana, Florida’s surge is overwhelming hospitals and driving up the number of fatalities. As of Aug. 10, an average of 141 Floridians were dying from COVID-19 each day, a number that has risen exponentially this week.

“We are in a COVID apocalypse right now,” a hospital official in Fairhope, Alabama, recently told Central Gulf Coast Bishop Russell Kendrick, according to Kendrick’s Aug. 10 message to the diocese, which encompasses the southern half of Alabama and the western end of the Florida Panhandle.

Amid the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in his diocese, Kendrick called on Episcopalians to offer prayers, praise and thanks for health care workers on the pandemic’s front lines. “We are now nearly drowning in a tsunami of sickness,” Kendrick said.

Episcopal leaders also are renewing their calls for unvaccinated people to get the shots. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry released a video Aug. 10 calling on Episcopalians to spread the word about the importance of getting vaccinated.

“Vaccines can help us save lives and make life livable,” Curry said. “I got mine. We can get ours for ourselves, but if not for ourselves, for our children who do not have a vaccine yet.” Pfizer’s vaccine is authorized for administering to children as young as 12, but no vaccine is available yet to younger children as studies continue.

The vaccinations that now are widely available in the United States have proven to offer effective protection against COVID-19 infection, with hospitalizations and deaths rare among vaccinated individuals. Across the United States, 50% of the population is fully vaccinated, though vaccination rates have varied widely by state and region.

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, at least 36 million people in the United States have tested positive, and more than 600,000 people have died. For the past month, new COVID-19 cases have been increasing in every state, prompting diocesan leaders from Hawaii to Rhode Island to consider new guidance for reducing the risk of transmission in churches.

Some of the worst outbreaks are in the South where vaccination rates have lagged. Alabama and Mississippi have the lowest vaccination rates in the country, each at 35% of residents, and 38% of residents in Louisiana and Arkansas are fully vaccinated. Those four states also are recording new COVID-19 cases at some of the highest rates per capita in the country. In Texas, with 45% of residents vaccinated, hospitalizations have quadrupled in the past month, and at least one health care system, in Houston, is setting up tents to accommodate the surge in patients.

“I want to strongly encourage all members of the diocese, if you have not, to get vaccinated,” Thompson, the Louisiana bishop, said in a message last month. “Studies show being vaccinated is our best defense against COVID. Our goal is to care for one another. Let us all do our part in caring for our neighbor.”

Florida’s statewide vaccination rate matches the 50% national rate, but county rates tell a different story. Miami-Dade County, for example has 63% of residents vaccinated, while some other Florida counties, especially in the Panhandle, are just now approaching 25%.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on masking late last month to recommend that all Americans, whether vaccinated or not, wear masks in indoor public places where transmission rates are high. The Diocese of Southwest Florida responded by asking clergy leaders to advise parishioners to wear masks indoors. The Diocese of Southeast Florida also is emphasizing mask usage while encouraging people to get vaccinated. Central Florida Bishop Gregory Brewer ordered masks to be worn at the diocese’s offices in Orlando but stopped short of extending that requirement to the diocese’s churches.

“While not mandating masks indoors at this time, all persons are encouraged to wear masks (covering the nose and mouth) when indoors,” the diocese said in an Aug. 3 update. “The risk of exposure exists for all people, regardless of vaccination status.”

Missouri, with 42% of residents vaccinated, is another state dealing with alarming new COVID-19 outbreaks and a corresponding rise in hospitalizations. Clergy and lay leaders in the Diocese of West Missouri have encouraged people in their communities to get vaccinated, and the diocese has allowed each congregation to established local policies for ensuring the safety of worshippers, including mask requirements, according to Gary Allman, the diocese’s communications director.

“Over the past few weeks, my observations have been that our churches have assessed local conditions, taken expert advice and prayerfully considered the best steps to take,” Allman told ENS by email. “As a result, those I’ve checked have self-imposed more rigorous guidelines than those required by their local authorities.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.