Speaking just two days after President Donald Trump said churches and other houses of worship were “essential” and argued that they should reopen this weekend, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said that churches may not be safe for people with pre-existing conditions.
In an interview on Fox News Sunday, Birx said that although it may be safe for some people to go church and practice social distancing, the same could not be said for people with pre-existing conditions. She also stressed that it was very important for governors and communities to let people know where there are still high volumes of coronavirus cases.
Such places include Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, Birx stated, adding that it was important to ensure that people with vulnerabilities are protected.
“That’s why in phase one and phase two,” she said, referring to the phases in the White House Guidelines for Opening Up America Again, “we’ve asked for those individuals with vulnerabilities to really ensure that they are protected and sheltering in place while we open up America.”
Birx’s cautionary statements about churches contrasted Trump’s tune at his last-minute press conference on Friday. Then, the president said he was instructing governors to allow churches to open “right now.” Trump added that “if there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me—but they are not going to be successful in that call.”
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” the president said on Friday. “It’s not right. So, I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”
As of Sunday, the U.S. registered more than 1.6 million covid-19 infections and more than 97,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center.
In recent days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published guidance to help churches and other communities of faith reopen safely. These include providing protections and options for staff and congregants at higher risk of developing severe illness from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
People at high risk include older adults and people with underlying health conditions. The CDC indicated that remote participation in services could be an option for people at higher risk. Other guidance includes promoting healthy hygiene practices, encouraging the use of cloth face coverings, and intensifying cleaning, disinfection and ventilation.
Churches are widely considered to be coronavirus hot spots. According to the Associated Press, a person who attended a Mother’s Day service at a church in Northern California, which refused to close, later tested positive for covid-19. The person had exposed more than 180 congregants.
This past Tuesday, the CDC published a report focused on the spread of the virus at churches. The report analyzed a case in early March in which 35 of 92 attendees at a rural Arkansas church developed covid-19. Of the people who developed the disease, three died. Beyond that, the CDC said that an additional 26 cases linked to the church occurred in the community, including one death.
“Faith-based organizations that are operating or planning to resume in-person operations, including regular services, funerals, or other events, should be aware of the potential for high rates of transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” the CDC report said, using the official name for the virus. “These organizations should work with local health officials to determine how to implement the U.S. government’s guidelines for modifying activities during the covid-19 pandemic to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and their communities.”
Three days later, President Trump came out and said we should reopen churches.