With the CDC’s latest recommendation that all people, vaccinated or not, wear masks indoors (see updated coronavirus-related guidelines released July 27), Alabama Baptist churches are again faced with decisions about how to handle masking and social distancing.
And church leaders across the state are assessing the situation in their local communities to make decisions about how to proceed.
On July 25 Zion Hill Baptist Church, Leighton announced on its Facebook page that “as the rise of the virus is going up, we are going back to wearing masks and asking [everyone attending] to wear a mask.”
The Church at Brook Hills, Birmingham, in an online update posted July 28, said those attending in-person worship should “consider wearing a mask while in the building.”
Iron City Church, Birmingham issued a request via Facebook Aug. 11 that “all attendees wear a mask in our Sunday worship service.”
And First Baptist Church, Huntsville is asking all members to wear a mask, requiring children ages 2–11 to do so since they can’t be vaccinated. Children’s teachers and workers also will be required to wear them.
FBC Huntsville Pastor Travis Collins told local media outlets two of his grandsons, ages two and four, recently tested positive for COVID-19, and the church is encouraging people to “be responsible.”
“I don’t know how long this is going to last, but we’ll distance and we’ll mask and we’ll encourage vaccinations, frankly as long as we have to,” Collins said.
Cases rising but not deaths
On Aug. 12 data provided by the Alabama Department of Public Health shows all 67 counties have a “high” coronavirus community transmission level. More than 17,000 positive COVID-19 tests were reported in the past seven days, according to the ADPH “dashboard,” with more than 4,000 new cases reported Aug. 11, according to Alabama State Health Officer Scott Harris.
Since the beginning of August, COVID-19 cases in the state have risen to levels last seen in December and January, when Alabama was averaging 3,000–4,000 positive tests a day.
The spike has not resulted in a dramatic rise in deaths, however. For comparison, on Feb. 3 Alabama health officials reported 309 COVID-19 deaths and a seven-day average of 147 deaths daily. On Aug. 11 there were 41 deaths attributed to COVID-19, with a seven-day average of 18 deaths daily.
But health officials are concerned about the increase in hospitalizations, especially among children.
In an Aug. 12 news conference Harris said Alabama “leads the country in positivity rates at unprecedented numbers.”
ICU hospital beds filling up
On Aug. 12 nearly 2,500 people in the state were hospitalized. Alabama set a record of 2,084 inpatients in mid-January and Harris said it’s likely that record will be broken within the next few days. The vast majority of those hospitalized, around 88%, are not fully vaccinated, Harris said.
He noted that, as of Aug. 12, only 5% of ICU hospital beds remain available statewide.
Among those testing positive for COVID-19, the state has recorded 8,700 total breakthrough cases — representing some 10% of total cases seen since that time, Harris said.
But, he added, the percentage of people “who have died from COVID since vaccines were widely available in April is about .001%.” In other words, he explained, dying of COVID-19 after vaccination is “extraordinarily uncommon,” and those who have died have had complicating chronic health problems.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 12,000 deaths in Alabama have been attributed to COVID-19.
More children also are being diagnosed, according to Children’s of Alabama.
“As of Aug. 12, 2021, we are treating 22 COVID-positive inpatients, five of whom are on ventilators,” the hospital said in a news release. “For comparison, 13 was our highest COVID census in January 2021 at the height of the last surge. This marked increase is due to the community spread of the Delta variant that is impacting younger people, including children.”
The update comes as school is underway across most of the state, and just as churches, schools are divided on masking requirements.
AL.com reports 58 of Alabama’s 149 public school districts, magnet and charter schools are requiring masks, but the decision to do so has been controversial, with contentious public discussion at meetings in Auburn and Hoover.
The updated CDC guidance recommends “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
Previous guidance already recommended masks on public transportation, including requiring them on school buses.
One school, Faith Academy, Mobile, announced it would delay the start of the school year from Aug. 9 to Aug. 31 due to the rise of COVID-19 cases in Mobile and Baldwin counties.
A letter to parents from Faith Headmaster John Timothy Skelton says in part:
“You have heard the news about the recent spike in COVID cases in our area. We have been consulting with a team of local medical professionals about the best course of action. Currently, our hospitals are over capacity. The delta variant is affecting the pediatric population of Mobile in an unprecedented manner. Our Faith family has been greatly impacted — from students to teachers to office personnel. Based upon all of this information, we have made the very difficult decision to postpone the start of school.
“We appreciate your patience as we navigate these concerns, and we covet your prayers in the coming days and weeks. We are praying for all of you daily, and we are so thankful that you have entrusted us with your precious children.”
For his part, Collins is urging people of faith to educate themselves and get vaccinated. And he knows the church’s new guidelines, which include the requirement that all musicians who participate in FBC Huntsville’s annual Living Christmas Tree presentation be vaccinated, may cause conflict.
Still, he said his priority is to protect the vulnerable in his congregation.
“We don’t know where this is going. We’re trying to be responsible,” he said.