Last night, Tuesday 24 March, the Prime Minister announced a range of new measures which restrict even further a range of matters, including public gatherings, travel, and—most importantly—weddings and funerals.
We have already registered that we are unable to use any church building for any service of worship, and that all group gatherings are not able to take place within church buildings. The exceptions that are occurring, for maintaining the administrative functions of the church and for community ministry activities operating under very strict protocols, must all be adhering to the protocols provided by the Chief Operating Officer of the Synod, Albert Olley (firstname.lastname@example.org).
It is clear from the new restrictions that churches now cannot plan to hold any outdoor gatherings in parks or in the outside area around the church. Please do not attempt to act in contravention to this directive. These gatherings, even if not indoors, still provide opportunity for the virus to spread and infect further people. (I have attached some notes, below, which set out the dangers inherent in such interactions.)
Because we do not know who might be infected by COVID-19 for fourteen days after infection occurs, any interaction with another person is a risk. We have a duty of care to ensure that we do not contribute to the spread of the virus. Likewise, of course, each of us is rightly concerned that we ourselves do not become infected. Please remember to adhere to the hygiene and social distancing guidelines which have been widely circulated.
There will be significant pastoral considerations for ministers and celebrants to deal with in relation to weddings and funerals. Weddings are limited to five people only. Funerals are limited to ten people only. These requirements are absolutely critical to slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It is vital that, if you are asked to conduct such a service, you ensure that these requirements are adhered to.
In addition, both weddings and funerals must observe the four square metre rule—that is, the building in which they take place must have four square metres for each person attending. They must also follow the 1.5 metre social distancing rule—that is, there is to be no physical contact between anyone attending, and each person must be 1.5 metres (two arm lengths) distant from any other person.
Because these requirements will require people to act so differently from the usual way that people celebrate at weddings and grieve at funerals, I encourage you to give careful consideration as to how you will respond to requests for you to conduct either funerals or weddings. You need to bear in mind the weight that you will be bearing in leading such gatherings and be prepared, in your mind, for how you will deal pastorally with the people who will be required to adhere to these requirements.
I particularly draw your attention to a paragraph in the Synod’s Guidance Note on Weddings and Funerals:
Ministers who are approached to conduct a wedding or a funeral have a duty of care to refuse to conduct such a service, if they are personally unwell (especially, exhibiting any of the signs of being infected by any virus, or the corona virus); or if they have one or more pre-disposing factors (age, or health conditions) which place them at greater risk, potentially, if they are infected by the corona virus.
The situation that we now move into will draw more deeply on our reserves of resilience, patience, and care, as we engage with people to communicate these requirements and as we interact with people seeking the services of a minister at a time of celebration or mourning.
I have been greatly impressed by the way that ministry colleagues right across the Presbytery have diligently approached the challenges of ensuring that Congregations which are unable to meet in person will still maintain a sense of connection with one another; and that worship for the community of faith that speaks to the local context will be provided, through one or another of the many means available to us, in this challenging time. I stand in awe of the creativity, commitment, and huge capacity that each minister in our Presbytery has demonstrated.
Please take care of yourself in this situation. Please be mindful of the importance of adhering to the Government’s guidelines. Please pray for one another, as we seek to serve a community with great needs. Please nourish your own self with the faith that we share, together, as the people of God.
25 March 2020
The notes below come from a retired microbiologist and infectious diseases expert who is a member of one of the Uniting Church Congregations in the Canberra Region Presbytery. He is very concerned about any gatherings now taking place. Here is what he says.
How Infections Spread
The COVID-19 Virus has been found in nose and throat secretions, faeces and blood, but not urine in the limited number of studies I have seen. Some other human coronaviruses are known to survive for up to 9 days in the environment, so disinfecting surfaces is even more important now.
We should be strictly observing cough and sneeze etiquette, whether or not we have other symptoms, as an infected but asymptomatic person can still be infectious to others.
Particles expelled by an unprotected cough can travel in still air up to 2 metres before hitting the ground, and particles from a sneeze can travel up to 6 metres. Suspended microparticles may take several hours to settle. Particles can also be expelled by singing, although not quite at the same rate as coughing or sneezing.
Some people become infected but never show symptoms. Some patients still test positive for the virus for some time after their symptoms resolve. It is not known whether people become immune after infection with the virus. Contrary to advice given by some, children can be infected and suffer severe disease from this virus.
Are we safer in the ACT because we do not live in a densely-populated area?
In Australia or any other country it is the degree to which community members interact personally that determines the degree to which any virus is transmitted, not the population density as such.
A person attending a ‘meeting’, for example a supermarket visit, suburban bus ride, meal at a restaurant or a church service, is just as likely to be infected with COVID-19 whether they are in Sydney, Canberra or some other much smaller town. A major difference between worshippers at a church service and patrons mentioned in the other examples, is the high level of personal interaction between worshippers before and after the service.
The crux of the problem is that we cannot always identify a person who is infected with, and possibly infectious for COVID-19. A symptomatic person can be excluded from the meeting/church service, but an asymptomatic person who has not been tested, but who is nonetheless potentially infectious to others, can not.
Estimates by authorities of the overall infection rate with this virus at the end of the pandemic range up to 85%. The case fatality rate (CFR) is high at around 14% in those over 80, and is also high in those with other comorbidities such as cardiovascular disease, severe respiratory disease, or who are immunocompromised through cancer therapy or other causes.
In summary, the rate of transmission of the virus through a community is dependent on the frequency and duration of personal interactions, not the size or population density of the community.