On Friday, March 13, 2020, the Kent County Health Department met with urban pastors in Grand Rapids to talk about what COVID-19 meant for our churches. City Commissioner Rev. Joe Jones and the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation's Khary Bridgewater helped put together this last-minute meeting. Jones wanted to make sure that urban pastors heard from the health department directly and got the opportunity to talk with each other about resources, because their churches don't always have a financial model that allows them to withstand a few weeks off. Bridgewater said,
"We've been thinking about this for a couple of weeks, since hearing about the case in South Korea where the center of transmission was a church. The Urban Church Leadership Center is closed now because the seminary campus is closed, so that staff is one hundred percent working on helping churches with anything they need. What creative ways can we find to worship together? Go small, short, and sweet? Multiple sessions? Move to online viewing and online giving? Pastors should contact Rev. Julian Guzman at email@example.com to mobilize that help, including using the UCLC website to host your videos if you decide to suspend services."
The information from the health department was clear, helpful, and did what Joann Hoganson, Community Wellness Director, wanted it to: it brought some anxiety down.
Size of gatherings:
How is the virus transmitted:
What you can do as a church:
We heard from Teresa Branson, the Deputy Health Officer, Steve Kelso, the Marketing and Communications Manager, and Joann Hoganson, the Community Wellness Director. Branson told us that although this is a situation that is fluid, and that things are constantly changing as information comes in and as the state makes decisions, the Kent County Health Department put its Incidence Command Structure in place a few weeks ago. Adam London is the Commander, and all decisions come from him (he was unable to be with us because he had new meetings to attend after 3 cases were confirmed in Kent County), Branson is the Deputy Commander; they also have a Safety Officer who is concerned with the health of health officers, a Lead Epidemiologist who takes the lead with quarantined individuals, and a Medical Liaison who maintains frequent contact with infectious disease specialists and disseminates that information. Although this is a new virus that they keep learning about, they exercise and train for events like this, and they follow the incidence command structure.
Pastors are also part of the who's-who. Kelso began his remarks by thanking the pastors:
"Thank you so much. The work you do in the community is so important and we appreciate it. Our role as public health isn't to stop the spread--that ship has sailed--it's to limit the spread of the virus. It's such a simple message. Wash your hands. Stay home if you're sick. Cough and sneeze into your elbow. You folks are so important as we are at this point in communicating these things to people. We don't have legal authority to stop gatherings of more than 100 people, so your cooperation will be key to slowing this thing."
Questions and Answers
One of the pastors asked about testing kits and Kelso admitted that testing is not very available. He noted that when people with fever and cough come to the emergency room, they are first tested for the flu, and that our flu numbers are higher than last year and above the 4-year average. But if they don't have the flu, then hospitals look at whether there are other things in that person's life that would indicate using one of the few tests Michigan has. He said that the safest conclusion is that COVID-19 is here.
Another pastor asked about how to handle funerals and funeral repasses, both because they often draw more than 100 people and because there is typically a lot of physical contact. Kelso was definitive about no handshakes, but admitted, "There's going to be a lot of hugging, and that's good for the soul." Branson chimed in and repeated the litany of limiting touches to hard surfaces and providing hand sanitizer if possible. She suggested that churches put signs about handwashing and coughing hygiene in bathrooms and on tables. And, as difficult as it would be, let people know that they should stay home if they are sick. She also recommended that meals be served or catered so servers could wear gloves while handling utensils to limit touches to hard surfaces.
City Commissioner Rev. Nate Moody noted that he's been seeing a lot of hostility in people, getting into arguments and hoarding goods. Branson lamented the national failure of not having enough supplies of certain materials, but said that part of the reason Governor Whitmer declared a state of emergency was to help Michigan get supplies more quickly. She said,
"Don't meet hostility with hostility but with compassion and do what you can to calm them: people fear the unknown."
Kelso emphasized the fear behind the hostility:
"People are afraid and want somebody to blame. Let people know there's no one to blame and we're all in this together. Helping people understand that may be enough to calm some people."
Hoganson was the source for the wonderfully clear information at the top of this article about how COVID-19 is transmitted. Her husband is a pastor and she spent 18 years as a missionary in Brazil, so she was very at home talking with a room full of church folk:
"We can't take away the church because it is a stabilizer for people who are anxious. Be creative about how you will supply spiritual support. Divide into groups. Spread people out. No handshaking or hugging. People are going to stay home, so that'll bring numbers down. Clean between services. Make a phone tree and assign people to call the elderly. Put your focus on your most vulnerable people. Meet outside! The virus is heavy and if sneeze or cough droplets fall to the pavement or grass that's safer than if you're indoors."
She gave us good information as to the difference between quarantine and isolation:
Pastors can still visit congregation members. Hoganson told us about the protocol her nurses use. When they call to make an appointment to come to someone's home they ask: Are you sick? Is anyone running a fever? Does anyone have a new cough? If the answer to any of these is yes, they schedule a phone or video meeting. If the answer is no, then the nurse comes to their house, washes their hands before and after the visit, avoids touching surfaces wherever possible, and tries to maintain a safe distance. The focus of the questions is purposely, "Are you sick?" and not "Do you have coronavirus?"
Rev. Julian Guzman asked the question on all our hearts: How long? But there was no answer. Branson noted that things are happening that none of them had ever seen in their careers in public health: closing schools, ordering gatherings of 250 to be cancelled. She said, "We're not getting information daily or hourly, but moment to moment. So keep up with these measures until we hear otherwise."
A pastor asked about their plans for managing the number of available beds in hospitals and Branson reassured us that that working with local hospitals on that is part of their incidence command structure; they are also already at work identifying other places people could use for isolation before shortages happen.
The question about the virus and any danger in handling money was answered with: limit touches, wear gloves, wash hands, encourage online giving.
Hoganson clarified the question of, "Who wears the mask?" A person who is sick wears a simple mask to present passing on their illness. A health care professional wears an N-95 mask that needs to be professionally fitted to protect them from getting ill while their are providing care.
When a pastor asked what people without health insurance should do about getting tested for COVID-19, Branson said that they should go to the emergency room if they are having symptoms, that they will be seen and tested whether they have insurance or not.
We will let Hoganson have the last word:
"There are a whole lot of sheep that need healthy shepherds--so take care of yourselves!"