Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.
As I began writing this blog post on New Year’s Day, 2021, it occurred to me that Santa had screwed us over. Throughout 2020, we were so-o-o-o good. We washed our hands. We masked. We socially distanced and avoided crowds. We sacrificed, so that we would have a better 2021. But what did we get for it? A lump of coal in our Christmas stockings. That and a COVID-19 mutation.
We tried to be oh-so-positive. In a recent church newsletter article, I congratulated our congregation for being resilient. I told them that we may soon be hugging and singing and removing our masks in church, maybe by mid-to-late 2021.
And then, on New Year’s Eve, we all said “good riddance” to 2020—as if 2021 would not be a year of sacrifices and challenges.
On New Year’s Day, there were bowl games on TV. And the local Appleby’s, which somehow has 99 big-screen TVs, overflowed with sports-minded revelers. I wondered about the mixed messaging of allowing elite college and professional athletes to play football and basketball during a pandemic, while the rest of us wore masks and socially distanced. Yeah, I reasoned that it’s good for our morale and for the economy. If athletes can unmask for the big game, we can unmask to eat wings and drink beer at Appleby’s. COVID-19 is serious, but not that serious. Or something like that.
In December 2020, Atlantic staff writer Elaine Godfrey wrote that the story of COVID-19 in America “is one of government inaction in the name of freedom and personal responsibility” (“Iowa Is What Happens When Government Does Nothing,” December 3, 2020).
Godfrey recalled what had happened in Iowa—how Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds had assiduously “followed President Trump’s lead in downplaying the virus’s seriousness. She never imposed a full stay-at-home order for the state, and allowed bars, gyms, and restaurants” to remain open. She refused to “require face coverings in public schools,” while ordering students to “spend at least 50 percent of their instructional time in classrooms.” Over the next several months, “infections exploded in [Iowa] meatpacking plants, nursing homes, and prisons.” In early December, “the state’s test-positivity rate reached 50 percent.” Forty-five Iowans were dying of COVID-19 every day “in a state of just 3 million people.”
Much of this suffering and death was preventable. Not only Iowans, but all Americans had looked to elected state and federal “leaders to tell them how to navigate the [pandemic], and those leaders [said that] they didn’t need to do much at all.” They made “people feel comfortable” about going out to restaurants and bars, and going back to school.
In November 2020, epidemiologists A. David Paltiel, Jason L. Schwartz, Amy Zheng, and Rochelle P. Walensky published a scholarly paper explaining that the benefits and effectiveness of any COVID-19 vaccination program would depend largely “on how swiftly and broadly it is implemented” and on “the epidemiological environment into which it [was] introduced. The vaccine’s benefits [would] decline substantially if there [were] manufacturing or deployment delays,” unpersuasive promotional messaging about the vaccine, significant public hesitancy to being vaccinated or to “adhere to complementary prevention strategies [like] mask-[wearing and social] distancing,” or if the pandemic became more severe (A. David Paltiel, Jason L. Schwartz, Amy Zheng, and Rochelle P. Walensky, “Clinical Outcomes of a COVID-19 Vaccine: Implementation Over Efficacy,” Health Affairs, November 2020).
When pandemic severity is comparatively low—because people are “masking, distancing, and [avoiding] large gatherings—vaccines with low efficacy [will] produc[e] larger reductions in infections and deaths than vaccines with much higher efficacy, introduced when [the pandemic severity] is significantly higher.” And the researchers emphasized this point: “Investment in [mask-wearing, social distancing, and crowd avoidance] remains imperative not simply until the arrival of a vaccine but throughout the prolonged period during which a vaccine is being deployed.”
Indeed, there is a strong likelihood that the COVID-19 virus will “become endemic, and will continue to mutate as it reproduces in human cells,” according to Dr. David Heymann, the chair of the World Health Organization’s [(WHO’s)] advisory group for infectious hazards. The world will probably “have to learn to live with COVID-19” (Melissa Davey, “WHOWarns Covid-19 Pandemic Is ‘Not Necessarily the Big One’,” The Guardian, December 29, 2020).
“The existence of a vaccine, even at a high efficacy, is no guarantee of eliminating or eradicating an infectious disease,” added Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of the WHO emergencies program. The next pandemic may be more severe. WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan reiterated the message: “being vaccinated against the virus did not mean public health measures such as social distancing [c]ould be stopped in [the] future.”
Former Harvard Medical School professor and HIV/AIDS and human genome researcher William Haseltine noted that COVID-19 will likely remain with us over the next year. “There is only a slim chance that vaccin[ations] will [be] universally available and effective enough to stop the pandemic before the end of 2021” (William A. Haseltine, “There Will Be No Quick COVID Fix,” Project Syndicate, December 29, 2020).
Moreover, a vaccination program will not “prevent infection or provide lifelong, lasting immunity. At best, [it] will limit the symptoms of those infected, and minimize the number of COVID-19 cases that progress to severe illness.”
Dr. Peter Hotez, a virologist and professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, confirmed that America’s public health infrastructure cannot handle a lot of complexity. Consider the logistics of vaccination: there are different approaches in all the states; the Pfizer vaccine requires super cold-temperature storage and transport, while others do not; and there are questions as to whether pharmacy chains—which are supposed to administer the vaccinations—can handle the load, and deal effectively with emergencies like allergic reactions (Lisa Grey, “COVID Expert Peter Hotez Worried Texas Down to Its ‘Last Arrow’ with Vaccine,” Houston Chronicle, January 8, 2021).
But all of this is old news. It was the state of play before a new coronavirus variant, B.1.1.7., swept through the United Kingdom, and was subsequently discovered in the United States (Carl Zimmer and Benedict Carey, “Coronavirus Variant Is Indeed More Transmissible, New Study Suggests,” New York Times, December 23, 2020).
“A team of British scientists noted that the variant is so contagious that new control measures, including closing down schools and universities, [may] be necessary.” Their “study, released by the London School’s Center for Mathematical Modeling of Infectious Diseases, found no evidence that the variant [is] more deadly than others.” But it is approximately “56 percent more contagious.”
The scientists were “confident that vaccines [would] be able to block the new variant. [But] without a more substantial vaccine rollout, hospitalizations and deaths in 2021 [could] exceed those in 2020.”
In addition, some scientists worried that the new variant could be harder “to neutralize and [better] able to outsmart the vaccine. One of the mutations, N501Y, increases how tightly the spike protein binds to the human ACE2 receptor, mak[ing] it easier for the virus to infect [people]. A second mutation to the spike protein, 69-70del, allow[s] the virus to evade some immune responses and [become] more transmissible. A third mutation, P681H, occurs in the cleavage site of the spike protein, [and] affect[s] how readily the virus can kill [human] cells.” This mutation increases the virus’s infectiousness and lethality (William Hazeltine, “Here’s What’s Worrying about the Coronavirus Variant,” CNN.com, December 25, 2020).
The COVID-19 virus “knows how to adapt quickly, much like the flu virus. We must therefore [anticipate] the possibility that the virus will be with us for the long haul. Like a flu vaccine, a COVID-19 vaccine might not be a one-and-done affair. A vaccine taken today [may not] remain effective 12 [or] 18 months into the future.”
This means that “we must immediately begin to plan for the next generation of COVID vaccines to respond more effectively to a changing virus.” Viruses are like “code-cracking machines, continuously running the numbers until they find a new way to exploit whichever ecological niche they inhabit. Sometimes, we run up against a virus that learns how to crack our defenses faster than we can rebuild them.” COVID-19 may be such a virus.
So . . . . What are we in the American Church to make of all this?
The Church, like other American institutions, has addressed the COVID-19 pandemic with short-term strategies—with a mixture of forced optimism and by trying to calculate how soon things can “get back to normal.” But what if masking, social distancing, and crowd avoidance become the new long-term normal?
Permanent masking and social distancing will challenge the status quo, and change everything, from how we think about worship and congregational community to how we use our church buildings.
Churches will continue to do many different things—ranging from worship (in person, or by Zoom and/or live-streaming), to study, to engaging in food and clothing distribution drives and myriads of other social justice actions. And there will be many ways in which churches engage their congregants.
All churches will experience a certain amount of fragmentation or disconnection with their congregants, as various worshippers—some disagreeing sharply with each other over “the best way” to worship and experience community during the pandemic—disengage from worship attendance, or peel away from the congregation to attend a different church that engages with them in ways more to their liking, or perhaps even “disappear altogether.”
We will need to find new ways of connecting with our people. Because we live in interesting and challenging times.
One thought on “The Virus, the Vaccine, the Variant, and the Viability of the American Church”
A couple history lessons! The situation you describe with the virus is a common thing that yes we may have to learn to live with like we have polio, mumps, measles, the flu and other diseases throughout history. HIV is still a deadly disease that we have learned to live with and has changed our lifestyle.
Do you remember The Rev. DR. C. Everett Parker. As a UCC leader you should. He was a pioneer of our church in the area of Civil Rights and Communication in the 60’s & 70’s. I was fortunate to have communication seminar with him when I was in seminary. He talked about the new technology at that time of Cable TV and how the church needed to use it in ministry. He saw it as a tool for reaching out to people over the TV and especially those in remote settings or with limited mobility, since it showed the possibility of two way communication. Unfortunately we were stuck in the Mud of traditionalism, especially in worship and saw creative use of TV as something the fundamentalists were doing so we didn’t pick up on it. Here we sit today forced by the virus to do what Rev. Dr. Parker was recommending we do 50 years ago on an even newer technology and fighting it, rather then reaching out to see how to use it better. Perhaps we should stop complaining about things and become truly PROGRESSIVE in accepting the challenges of a bad situation and using it for growth and ministry across the entire church.
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