Mississippi state health officer urges virtual, outdoor worship services in wake of rising COVID-19 cases

Published: Dec. 22, 2020 at 7:26 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - With Christmas days away, Dr. Thomas Dobbs continues to urge people to skip large gatherings, including worship services, to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Dobbs, the state health officer, hosted a Zoom meeting Tuesday evening with members of the clergy.

He laid out recommendations for worship services, saying that he would prefer gatherings to be held online. Barring that, Dobbs recommended outdoor services, with congregants practicing social distancing.

“Outdoors is much safer, without a doubt,” he said. “If you didn’t want to have virtual services only, which I think is the best idea, the second-best idea is a short outdoor service.

“That’s something I would potentially be comfortable doing – where people can spread out and have that airflow.”

About 50 religious leaders from across the state joined in on the call, where Dobbs also shared the latest COVID-19 trends.

“We’re in a situation where ICUs are absolutely full. We were too busy in the summer and we’re above too busy now,” he said. “ERs are jam-packed with ICU patients because they have nowhere to go.

“Some ICUs have two people in each room … we’ve never done that before,” he said. “We’ve had people die in rural areas because they didn’t have access for referrals for critical care.

“We’re having to put pressure on our health partners to make sure they can take care of everybody the best they can.”

He expects hospitalizations and new COVID-19 cases to rise even more following Christmas and New Year’s, with people traveling, going to holiday parties and visiting family and friends.

Dobbs pointed to the fact that there was a bump in COVID cases following Halloween and an even larger bump following Thanksgiving.

“November was very frightening because we saw a shift from less young folks to more middle-age folks” contracting the virus.

He said that the increase among middle-aged individuals has led to an increased mortality rate, as well as increased hospitalizations.

On Tuesday, Mississippi reported 79 new deaths, the highest one-day death totals since the outbreak began.

“It’s a pretty common thread ... young folks with the disease bringing it home, giving it parents and bringing it to their grandparents,” Dobbs said. “Sadly, we’re experiencing death as a result of that.”

Of the nearly 4,500 Mississippians who have died from the virus, the vast majority, more than 76 percent, have been among those 65 or older.

“Twelve percent of people over 65 (who get the virus) will die,” he said.

Dobbs said church officials can help limit the spread by moving services online and by following other guidance from the Mississippi State Department of Health.

He pointed to one case that was documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two symptomatic people attended church events March 6-8. As a result, at least 35 other people who attended those events contracted the virus. Three of those who contracted the virus died.

To avoid these tragedies, MSDH is urging worshippers to avoid in-person services.

For services that are still ongoing, the department urges congregants who are 60 or older or who have severe high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, or a weakened immune system to avoid attending.

State health leaders are also asking that church services are held outdoors and shortened in length.

Meanwhile, religious leaders are being asked to ensure those who attend practice social distancing, wear masks, avoid physical contact, and cut out singing.

The Mississippi State Department of Health is recommending virtual or outdoor services in the...
The Mississippi State Department of Health is recommending virtual or outdoor services in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases(WLBT)

“One of the things we’ve seen over and over again (is) when people are around people they know and love, they let down their guard,” Dobbs said. “These are things we want to prevent if we can … anyone being in close proximity, breathing the same air, and touching each other.”

Rev. Tommy Conway, with St. Fabian Catholic Church, attended the Zoom meeting and said it’s time for pastors to set the example for their members.

“God doesn’t protect you more inside the church than … in a restaurant,” he said. “We have to get rid of that myth. We have to use common sense.”

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