Considering Omicron & In-Person Gatherings

By Treena Duncan, Executive Minister

Treena Duncan

I have been receiving many emails wondering whether it’s safe to continue to gather in person. Throughout this pandemic, we have been called again and again to make difficult choices, to wade through the politics and rhetoric to get to the grain of truth which will lead us toward the best next step on this journey.  Our public health officials are working very hard to keep us safe, to protect our health care system and to protect our elders.

Dr David Keegan, a committed United Church member, Alberta doctor and professor at the University of Calgary, reached out to me to offer some wisdom and guidance for the church. He is calling on The United Church of Canada in Western Canada to be leaders in the fight against Omicron.

He said, “I suggest that the United Church has the opportunity to save many lives, prevent hospital admissions and long-term disability, and to focus on the social justice and life orientation of Jesus by switching to online services for Christmas/Christmas Eve. Let’s give the gift of life this Christmas.”
Dr Keegan goes on to say:

  • “For anyone unvaccinated or partially vaccinated (or even for some who have two shots), Omicron is a severe threat to life and health, just like the previous variants.
  • Omicron spreads incredibly rapidly, even with measures such as those in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
  • Omicron (and all COVID) is airborne, which has been known for over a year, but which many governments have been loathe to acknowledge
  • Omicron’s doubling time is moving at a record pace
  • Testing numbers lag and are usually far less than the actual case numbers
  • Previous research indicates that if a daily case count is rising, there is 10 to 100 times of new infections really in the community – people who have simply not yet developed symptoms and/or not tested.  This is supported by the fact that our positive case rate (i.e. percent positives of all people tested) has suddenly jumped to over 11% in Alberta, when just a week ago it was 4%.  When the positive case rate jumps like this, it means there are likely lots of people out there who have COVID.  Let’s be conservative and only use the 10x number.  This brings us to 36,000 NEW cases of covid TODAY in all of Alberta.  This means we’re looking at 288,000 NEW cases on Christmas Eve alone – most of whom don’t know they have the virus.
  • Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gatherings – even if most people have two vaccines are essentially guaranteed to be super-spreader events.  In other words, thousands or tens of thousands of cases could directly arise from allowing Christmas in person events at UCC churches, including many deaths and many more people with resultant disabilities.”

Presently, the restrictions for Places of Worship have not changed: in Alberta we can be at one-third capacity; in BC we can be at 100% capacity with vaccine passports or 50% without.  However, again, we are called to a higher standard to care for our members. While the pandemic has unfolded differently in the two regions I serve, I believe Dr Keegan’s wisdom goes beyond regional borders. This pandemic has gone on for longer than any of us could have ever imagined.  We are all tired of restrictions and we just want things to go back to ‘normal.’ But we are led by one who calls us into difficult choices and walks with us through these challenging times.

So, what do we do about Christmas Eve?  Minimally, we need to ensure that we follow all the provincial restrictions, wearing proper masks (N95 masks are the gold standard) have good ventilation and ensure proper measures for distancing.  Please do not have communion (this requires people to remove masks) or hold post worship gatherings. 

But I also invite you to take up Dr Keegan’s challenge and consider moving your service online to ensure that our places of worship are not a source of virus transmission.  And as always, we know: We are not alone!

Christmas Blessings,

Executive Minister, Chinook Winds and Pacific Mountain Regional Councils, The United Church of Canada