SEPA Pandemic Guidance and Resources

Updated: October 1, 2021 by Bob Fisher

Latest Pandemic-Related Articles

Ideas for Adapting Worship and Congregational Life

As of September 27, the CDC reports a high level of community transmission across our region. Check COVID-19 new cases, positive test rates, and ICU utilization for your county to determine the relative safety of indoor or outdoor gatherings.



Dr. Tim Babinchak, an infectious disease specialist and member of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Phoenixville, has been offering guidance for responding to COVID to SEPA Synod this year. Here he answers some current questions from SEPA leaders. If you have a question for Dr. Babinchak, please send it to Pastor Bob Fisher at

What is our experience locally with “breakthrough” infections, and with pediatric illnesses and hospitalizations?

Our local experience is mirroring the rest of the country that has similar vaccination rates.  I don’t like to call them “breakthrough” infections because the vaccines were never developed to “prevent infection”.  Rather, the goal is to reduce the severity of illness and the need for hospitalization (and subsequently mortality).  And this they have done remarkably well.  No vaccine is perfect, and the efficacy of the current vaccines remains >90% on average, including the variants.   That still means that even 10% of individuals vaccinated will still experience infection.  These infections are more likely asymptomatic or mild, and of a shorter duration.  The infections requiring hospitalization are still >90% in the unvaccinated.

Do we know much about both the seriousness of illness in young children and/or the length of hospitalization they are requiring?

Children still tend to experience mild infection with fewer than 5% requiring hospitalization.  However, that can still be a high number given that many of these children are still not eligible for vaccination.  And, yes, some cases are quite severe.

What do you see happening with the virus locally over the coming weeks?

The trends in our area are declining cases and hospitalizations, but that varies given the location.  Once again, it is a direct reflection of the rate of unvaccinated individuals in the communities.  Most of our immediately surrounding counties are in the low to moderate transmission categories.  But where there are high pockets of unvaccinated individuals, transmission continues to be brisk.

Media has been very quiet about variants other than Delta. What is happening in terms of variants?

Variants will continue to arise, however, so far none have been identified that are either more transmissible or more likely to cause severe disease.

As cases remain high, do we need to think about a "new careful" -- double-masking to protect kids? Cutting back on singing, or singing masked? 

My recommendations here remain the same.  All our social distancing, masking and hand washing should continue to the extent reasonably possible (double masking, reducing singing or singing masked may be helpful, but these are not contributing significantly to the continued transmission).  Again, the limited amount of time spent in the confined areas, if socially distanced and with good ventilation has been shown to be most effective.  Importantly, don’t attend if you don’t feel well.

What can we do in a church building that cannot bring in outside air through its systems -- is opening windows enough? Will we need to keep that up even as it gets colder?

Increasing air circulation has been shown to be quite effective.  Opening windows if the HVAC can’t be increased can help to increase circulation. Yes, even when it gets colder.

Many clergy were vaccinated early. How concerned should we be with waning immunity as winter and flu season approach?

Fortunately, for the generally healthy, the initial vaccine regimens remain very effective, even without “boosters”.  As above, this is measured by reduced severity and lower hospitalizations.  This is the evidence that prompted the decision to provide “boosters” only to those most vulnerable.  In these cases, it is the other underlying illnesses and conditions that make any infection more serious.  Thus, if an individual does have a qualifying condition, then boosting has been shown to be beneficial.

Click to watch video

With Delta variant cases remaining high, Pastor Bob Fisher notes that churches can "find a longer term way...of loving our neighbors, as Christians, during this abnormal time." This video summarizes continuing guidance: wearing masks, improving ventilation, and reducing the concentration of people in an indoor space.
Lutherans show this love of neighbor in so many ways: feeding the hungry, helping those affected by tornados and flooding, caring for the houseless. The current situation gives us an opportunity to witness to our communities by doing all we can to reduce the severity and length of this ongoing pandemic.
Visit for more information.
Latest Osterholm Update:
In "Corrected Science," Dr. Osterholm covers the uncertain future of the pandemic in the US and abroad, the FDA advisory panel's recommendation on booster doses, and vaccinations and cases in children.

Last week was the single worst week for pediatric COVID cases since the start of the pandemic, with more than a quarter-million new cases diagnosed, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said on Thursday’s edition of his podcast. Cases among children aged 0-17 account for 30 percent of all cases in the U.S., he said.

Cases among children aged 15 and under are higher than the peaks seen during January’s surge. New hospitalizations among children aged 0-17 last week were nearly double the winter peak. In the Southeast, pediatric hospitalizations are nearly double the national average. Twenty-three percent of all deaths of children have occurred in the last month.

“I fear the worst is yet to come,” Osterholm said.

These trends are informative for churches in determining how to proceed with early childhood education and daycare programs, as well as including unvaccinated adults and children in worship and faith formation activities. Evidence shows that there have been an increasing number of school closures, now in 38 states, that typically occur 3-4 weeks after classes resume, Osterholm said.

While public attention has been focused on masks, Osterholm said that proper masking with high-quality N95 equivalents must be layered with concerns about vaccinating more adults and children, reducing the density of people in the space, and providing adequate ventilation.(Consult an HVAC professional to determine specifics for your space.)


COVID Update for Fall 2021

Click or tap to watch video

Dr. Tim Babinchak, an expert in infectious diseases, advises congregations to continue with the precautions of wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, cleaning, and increasing ventilation as they continue with indoor worship services and other activities. Dr. Babinchak, a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Phoenixville, is retired head of infectious diseases at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Here are takeaways from his presentation to SEPA leaders August 26:

  • COVID is NOT going away. We are learning to live with it.
  • Today’s vaccines do not prevent infection. They are very good at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death.
  • The precautions we became familiar with before May’s temporary easing of protocols, are still effective: Wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing, cleaning high-touch and high-traffic areas with soap or ethanol.
  • Cloth masks are effective during short duration events less than one hour, such as worship.
  • If possible, six feet of distance should be maintained between people from different family units.
  • Ventilation is key. Open windows and/or have an expert ensure your HVAC system allows sufficient air exchange.
  • Protocols must be maintained now because the Delta variant spreads more easily than the original strain of the virus.
  • 90 percent of rise in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are among unvaccinated persons.
  • Vaccinated people can be infected and transmit the virus without showing any symptoms.
  • Precautions will be needed until school-age children, ages 5-12, can be vaccinated. Precautions do not have to be as restrictive as were implemented prior to vaccines.
  • Singing is still a very hazardous activity, even with masks.
  • Choirs and congregational singing is discouraged
  • A small group of masked cantors may be safe depending on the space and
  • Advent/Christmas events that include children and unvaccinated people that are amenable to social distancing and masking can go on.
  • Follow CDC and county-level transmission statistics. Take a long-term view: the overall trend is important



This educational presentation contains the professional opinions of the presenter for use by church leaders in decision-making, and does not constitute advice or recommendations from the synod.

Video: Preparing Heating/Cooling Systems -- On Oct. 1, our communicators group was joined by Mr. Dennis Smith, manager of buildings and grounds at Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale. Dennis shared with us good information about airflow requirements, ways to improve ventilation in enclosed spaces, and other considerations in reopening church facilities.


As of August 1, the CDC reports that Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery counties are experiencing “substantial” community transmission of coronavirus.

The CDC recommends that all people, vaccinated or not, wear masks and maintain physical distancing in indoor public or multi-household gatherings. See this article explaining CDC guidance.

Unvaccinated persons, including all children under 12 (who cannot yet be vaccinated), are most at risk. There is evidence that persons who are fully vaccinated may become infected, and transmit the virus before they show any symptoms (and a very small percentage do).

Our synod’s guidance remains the same: First, do no harm. As Christians we do not want our gatherings to worsen transmission, illness, hospitalization or deaths in our communities. Protecting children (and their parents) and other who have not been vaccinated is a high priority.

We urge you to get vaccinated if you are not already, and to urge people in your congregations to get the vaccine.

The trend across our region has been increasing community transmission, as this animation covering the last 30 days taken from the CDC website shows: Risk and Vaccine Data →

CDC COVID Data Tracker →

Resources to promote getting vaccines

The nationwide increase in COVID cases is affecting Southeastern Pennsylvania. As of July 20, the CDC reported that community transmission risk is moderate in our suburban counties, up from low risk two weeks ago. Risk of community transmission in Philadelphia is low. According to Dr. Tim Babinchak, a local infectious disease expert, "we are definitely seeing the increase in hospitalizations locally as well, among the unvaccinated. This situation will continue as long as we have a significant portion of the population unvaccinated.  This unfortunately includes our young children.  With that in mind and to be the most conservative, requiring masks and restricting singing is entirely reasonable."

As the highly contagious Delta and other variants speed across the U.S., increasing vaccination numbers locally protects our communities. Right now, cases, while low, are increasing across our region. Most infections and hospitalizations are among unvaccinated persons. Children who cannot be vaccinated yet and immunocompromised patients, for whom the vaccines are less effective, are at risk. Love your neighbor. Love your family. Get the shot.

As church leaders, we are trusted voices for many in our congregations and communities who are still hesitant about vaccines. This is an opportunity to share our stories of why we were vaccinated, and to offer information about the dangers of remaining unvaccinated.

In a video message, Bishop Patricia A. Davenport offers prayer for our leaders and congregations as together we continue to press through to the other side of the pandemic.

In this pastoral word of encouragement, the Bishop asks Lutherans to be gentle with one another as individuals and congregations have varying feelings about returning to in-person gatherings. As the Delta variant continues to claim lives, the bishop says: "In love as disciples of Christ we too give our lives for the sake of the other. We encourage vaccinations as per the instructions of the experts and we trust that those who choose not to be vaccinated will continue to wear their masks to protect others as we continue to gather in person."

Watch the video or read the transcript below.

“Nothing right now is normal...”

Greetings beloved. I pause today to offer a prayer and a word of encouragement as we continue to press through to the other side of this pandemic. Join me in a prayer taken from All Creation Sings. Let us pray.

Sovereign God, your Son Jesus lived within the structures of society even as he spoke truth to those in power and challenged systems of oppression. Empower us to be courageous disciples and responsible citizens. Grant that our life in the public realm be grounded in the love for our neighbors, care for the most vulnerable in our midst and respect for the common life we share, following the example of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

After conversation with some of our lay and rostered ministers, I take this opportunity to ask that we be gentle and kind with one another as we slowly move to returning to our new abnormal, because nothing right now is normal for many. Please, listen to the infectious disease experts, especially our own, Dr. Babinchak, a member of St. John's Phoenixville, Dr. Michael Osterholm, a member of the President's COVID 19 Advisory Board, a Lutheran who speaks to the conference of bishops with updates. Go to to hear a word of wisdom. We pay attention to the CDC guidelines and we listen to the words of scripture.

Jesus says in John 13:34, "I give you a new commandment that you love one another just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."

Yes. In love as disciples of Christ we too give our lives for the sake of the other. We encourage vaccinations as per the instructions of the experts and we trust that those who choose not to be vaccinated will continue to wear their masks to protect others as we continue to gather in person. Please know that we continue in prayer for our frontline workers as this Delta variant is claiming lives daily. We pray for those who continue to mourn the loss of loved ones. We pray your strength as together we continue building the kingdom of God in Southeastern Pennsylvania's Synod, that we might be the beloved community that God calls us to be.

Stay blessed and stay safe for your sake and for the sake of the other. God bless you all.

Find a Philadelphia vaccine clinic

More information and resources →

I listened to Dr. Michael Osterholm's July 8 podcast (so you don't have to). In Southeastern Pennsylvania, a relatively high number of people are vaccinated. The risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and death are much higher for those who can or will not be vaccinated. Churches need to decide how to best protect these vulnerable people in their midst and in their local community. Here is a summary of main points. -- Bob Fisher

With only 7 percent of the world's population vaccinated against COVID-19, variants of the virus will continue to emerge and spread globally, Dr. Michael Osterholm said on the July 8 edition of his podcast, Osterholm Update. The virus is in control, not us, he said. "All we can do is vaccinate." 

Until the pandemic is over globally, Osterholm said, it is not over here. That is especially true for the 45 percent of Americans who have not received even one dose of a vaccine. The highly transmissible Delta variant, unlike the Alpha variant which caused outbreaks in only a few states including Michigan and Minnesota, is now causing growing case numbers in 31 states. The U.S. as a whole has seen a 14 percent increase over the last 14 days, while the number of people tested has fallen, he said. 

"The take-home message is vaccine, vaccine, vaccine," he said "It is still working against severe disease and hospitalizations, and we have to do whatever we can to get people vaccinated, and that is going to be our best defense against the Delta variant." 

Nearly one-half of the U.S. population is unvaccinated, including children under 12, who are not eligible yet for vaccines but can become infected, transmit the virus, and become ill, Osterholm said. Among those age 65 and older, 21 percent remain unvaccinated. And there are still more than 1,000 counties in the US where fewer than 1 in 5 people have received a single dose. This is a lot of people open to serious disease due to the increasingly dominant Delta variant.  

The good news is that while vaccines are not foolproof, they have proven to reduce the incidence of serious illness and hospitalization in people who have received them. In May, only 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID deaths reported were among fully vaccinated people. That is a rate of 5 per day for fully vaccinated people, and about 300 per day among partially or not vaccinated people, Osterholm said. 

This respiratory virus doesn't care if you think you can wait out the clock and not get vaccinated, he said. "This virus will find you." ♰

As church leaders, we are trusted voices for many in our congregations and communities who are still hesitant about vaccines. Perhaps especially in Philadelphia, which has a 10% vaccination rate. This is an opportunity to share our stories of why we were vaccinated, and to offer information about the dangers of remaining unvaccinated.

Although the coronavirus is “never going to go away,” the good news is that “it’s as safe (now) as it's going to get at this point,” infectious disease expert Dr. Tim Babinchak told SEPA leaders on a Zoom call June 24. “And as more people get vaccinated, it will get safer.”

During his presentation, Dr. Babinchak said that:

  • Everyone should get vaccinated as soon as possible. So far vaccines are effective against variants, including the rapidly spreading Delta variant.
  • The currently vulnerable population is adults who cannot or will not get the vaccine – including healthy people under age 25 – and children, who may be able to be vaccinated before school starts in the fall.
  • Wearing masks and physically distancing indoors is safest for people who are not vaccinated, especially if singing.
  • These precautions can be dropped in outdoor settings, although vulnerable people may wish to mask and distance.
  • It is safer if those administering Communion are vaccinated.
  • Serving food and beverages at coffee hours poses no exceptional threats, and it is safer if servers are vaccinated.
  • Common sense precautions still apply: Do not come to church if you are sick. Wash your hands before you come.
  • People who self-identify as vulnerable should take personal responsibility to take proper precautions for the protection of the community.

Following are highlights of the conversation.

Can we go back to “normal” now?

“This virus isn't going away. It's never going to go away. It's just going to reach a steady state that we're going to have to deal and live with much as we deal with influenza virus. So my major activities are toward getting information out to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and by doing so, we have the best chance of limiting that spread.”

How important is being vaccinated?

“Vaccine is clearly the key.” Older Americans have greater than 80% vaccination rate. Rates drop in younger age groups, with the lowest in the under-25 group. The risks for COVID-19 exist in the unvaccinated population. “The vaccines are 90 to 95% effective even against these variants. When I say effective, what I mean there is that the vaccine is very good at preventing severe illness that will result in hospitalization or death. It doesn't mean that you can't get sick. It doesn't mean that you can't get the virus, but … any illness is more likely to be mild.”

How serious is the Delta variant?

“In the past month, it's gone from less than 3% to now at least 20% of the virus that continues to circulate” mostly among unvaccinated people. [Delta appears to be both more infectious and cause more serious illness in vulnerable and unvaccinated people.] What happens in the coming months will determine if different strategies are needed.

Will we need boosters or re-vaccination?

“We only have experience for as long as we've had vaccines,” approximately a year since clinical trials started. “So we know that immunity lasts at least a year. And from everything that we've seen so far, there doesn't seem to a need for a booster at one year. … That's all being followed very carefully because we may get a variant that is not vaccine susceptible.”

Do congregations still need to take precautions?

“Unfortunately, I don't think that we're ever going to get out of this situation because we're always going to have people who are unprotected, just as we have people who don't get flu shots. … The question is, how then do we manage and deal with the risks that those folks are now assuming on their own, essentially?. And my recommendations are really not a lot different than they were, when we did this a month ago. And that is as long as there are people at risk, each congregation, is going to need to take its own temperature and determine how much of that risk they're willing to accept within their congregation.”

Is indoor worship safe?

“Transmission is greatest in enclosed places where you spend a lot of time with individuals who could potentially be sick and in the various activities that they're doing. … My recommendation is you can ask and you need to have people be willing to self-identify and take some responsibility on their own.”

Congregations could reduce physical distancing for individuals or family groups that are vaccinated from six feet to three feet. Congregations can ask those who are still vulnerable or unvaccinated to continue to wear masks and social distance. “Understand that as, as being part of that community, you're being asked to take into consideration your fellow parishioners.”

“For the most part, indoor activities should still be social distanced and masked to the extent possible, particularly those who self-identify themselves at risk.” These precautions are key in reducing the development of new variants.

What about outdoor worship?

Masks are not necessary outdoors, even for spoken responses. [Ecumenical guidance still suggests maintaining physical distance between people from different households.]

What about singing?

“Singing is still by far the riskiest behavior that our congregations are going to undertake. and again, that is to the vulnerable, the unvaccinated, for the most part.” Dr. Babinchak displayed a chart -- see page 4 of this study -- showing that singing, even softly, emits more of the particles that spread as aerosols -- smaller than 5𝛍m – than speaking, whispering, or breathing through the nose or mouth.

To make singing indoors safer, wear two-ply masks and maintain distancing within the church, especially for those who are vulnerable. “Most of our services are for less than an hour, and that length of time exposure with ventilation (is) not an issue.” For most public buildings, eight air exchanges per hour is considered adequate. Exchanging air every 7-8 minutes prevents the longer exposure that puts people at risk. Consult an HVAC contractor to determine the adequacy of air exchange in your building.

“You can sing without masks outdoors” because ambient airflow disperses virus particles.

How should we clean/disinfect our indoor spaces? 

“Normal cleaning procedures that you have in place are sufficient.” Spaces do not need extraordinary cleaning before returning indoors or between services, provided they are spaced out. “The important part is still not so much the surfaces in the church as people are washing their hands before they come in the church. And that's the key, stressing the usual things that we stressed before COVID ever existed. Don’t come if you're sick, please wash your hands and please be considerate of others.”  

Do you have recommendations for distributing communion?

No special procedures are needed except that “those who are delivering the sacrament should be vaccinated. … That is the best way to protect the congregation.” Given this caveat, individual cups or a common cup are acceptable, provided the cup is wiped off between communicants. Communion rails do not have to be cleaned between tables. In general, the brief exposure during communion is not highly dangerous.

Can we resume sharing food and beverages at coffee hour?

Congregations could consider this, factoring in their local situation. “It just has not been the case where we're seeing these large outbreaks in the delivery of food service, either in individual restaurants or in grocery stores, or in, in other retail type establishment.” Congregations can decide whether food servers must be vaccinated.

“It’s as safe (now) as it's going to get at this point. And as more people get vaccinated, it will get safer in that regard. And that's why I wanted to stress the good news. We don't have any evidence that this virus (makes us) any more unsafe than we were a year ago, with the exception of those who are unvaccinated. Now, for me, the shift needs to be back to (taking) personal responsibility -- if you know you are vulnerable, you have the personal responsibility of not putting others at risk in those particular situations.”

The Pandemic Is Not Yet Over

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Tim Babinchak tells us that he has not significantly changed the advice he gave to us last month. He wrote in an email today:

‟Most of my recommendations remain the same as vaccination progress appears to be stalling and we are seeing the more contagious Delta variant becoming dominant in Pennsylvania (and the rest of the country).  That leaves the unvaccinated at heightened risk.  For the most part, anything taking place outdoors doesn’t require masks.  However, if indoors and not vaccinated, those individuals should still be masked and social distanced.”

In the latest Osterholm Update podcast, Dr. Michael Osterholm lays out some possibilities for the coming months. (You can listen here; the relevant discussion begins at 19:00.) Some quick takeaways:

  • Most of the US is experiencing a marked decline in cases
  • The so-called Delta variant, which originated in India, increased from 6% of US cases to 10% in the last week. It is both more infectious and causes more serious disease than previous variants.
  • Persons who are not vaccinated (and those who are immunosuppressed even if vaccinated) are at risk from these more virulent variants.
  • While we do not know how this will play out, it is possible that some local areas or regions will experience outbreaks.
  • This risk continues until sufficient vaccines and treatment reach the rest of the world.

A recent article in The Atlantic observes that with the May CDC announcement that vaccinated people do not need masks in most circumstances, official message has moved from protect everyone, especially the vulnerable, to a more individualistic tone. As CDC Director Rochelle Walinsky tweeted, "Your health is in your hands." Individuals, businesses, and churches are being asked to determine how much risk is acceptable -- and to whom. Access to vaccines has improved, and some people choose not to partake, but there are communities -- people with low access to health care and/or time off for medical needs, and particularly communities of color -- that involuntarily assume greater risk. As church, we must think about who we put at risk through our choices.

As Bishop Davenport has said throughout the pandemic: Stay safe, and make doing no harm your top priority.

⬇︎Latest Ecumenical Guidance ⬇︎

Long-awaited guidance from the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship and Sacraments, released June 8, advises houses of worship to go slowly with in-person gatherings where vaccinated and unvaccinated persons occupy the same space.

“The group suggests limiting touching except where Christian rituals, such as laying on of hands for confirmation, require it; avoiding congregational singing and playing wind instruments indoors; wearing masks when preaching indoors — or outdoors closer than 16 feet from listeners. Singing, which has been shown to spread the virus especially effectively, should be limited to soloists or ensembles kept well distanced,” according to a report from the Religion News Service.

The consultation, “an ecumenical group of theologians, scientists, physicians, pastors, bishops, and practitioners from United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopal, Pan-Methodist, Presbyterian, American Baptist, and Roman Catholic traditions, among others,” published a 36-page report with detailed guidance for safely worshipping and offering sacraments, confirmation and funerals.

The report offers benchmarks for leaders deciding whether to re-gather in person, noting that community conditions can change rapidly. We have seen dramatic decreases in cases and test positivity across the Philadelphia metro area, some counties still see ICU utilization rates greater than 70%.

Among the report’s key guidelines:

  • Wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and disinfecting are still necessary when vaccinated and unvaccinated persons are together.
  • Outdoor services may be an hour or longer. Indoor gatherings should be no more than 30-45 minutes, assuming 4 to 6 air exchanges per hour. (Most buildings are rated for 0.35 exchanges per hour. Check with an HVAC professional)
  • Limit physical touching to what Christian ritual requires, such as the laying on of hands at baptisms and confirmations.
  • Avoid practices indoors that are known to spread the virus among unvaccinated persons, including congregational singing, shouting, and playing wind instruments.
  • Congregational and choral singing are possible outdoors if all singers are masked, remain six feet from persons not in their household, and at least 16 feet from others in the congregation.
  • Singing by a soloist or small ensemble (4-6 persons) is possible indoors if all singers are vaccinated, wear masks, and maintain physical distancing as described above.
  • For Communion it is recommended that servers take the elements to worshippers in their seats rather than having people form lines. Masking and hand sanitizing are necessary.

As new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations trend downward, our congregations can begin to look forward to our new abnormal for worship and congregational life.

“Focus on moving forward, not going back,” says Pastor Bob Fisher, assistant to the bishop for communications. “Worship won’t immediately be what we remember, yet the creativity we have employed will help us to create a safe, new abnormal.”

There are many reasons church may look different than it did pre-pandemic: Will people want to attend indoor worship? How do we protect unvaccinated children? How do we address the CDC’s bifurcated advice, telling vaccinated people they do not need masks in most situations, while those who are not vaccinated do? When and how might it be safe to sing in-person? How do we continue to serve people who are not comfortable coming to indoor worship?

Rather than raise a false expectation that things will be back to normal, prepare and encourage people for the opportunities for creativity and the uncertainty ahead.

There are many decisions to be made as churches address the challenges of getting together in person. It is best to be deliberate rather than responding to the latest news cycle (which may change tomorrow). Be safe, and protect your members and your community.

  • Please read the risk updates below for more information

Children and unvaccinated people continue to be at risk of infection, along with those who are vaccinated but have conditions that limit the vaccines’ efficacy. The Washington Post reports that the case rate among unvaccinated people in the US is as high as the rate for the entire population three weeks prior. In Pennsylvania, the death rate for unvaccinated people on May 19 was the same as the overall death rate on Feb. 23, nearly three months before. The rate is more than 50 percent higher than the national average for unvaccinated persons. This indicates that “unvaccinated people are not yet getting safer.”

Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota discusses the confusing messaging about masks in the latest episode of his podcast. The type of mask employed makes a huge difference in the amount of protection it affords. If an infected and a non-vaccinated person gather without masks, and are within six feet of one another, an infectious dose can be received in just 15 minutes. If the unvaccinated “receiver” wears a cloth mask that increases to 20 minutes; with a surgical mask to 30 minutes; and with an N95 mask, 2.5 hours or more. This is to say that the type of mask, distancing, and length of exposure all must be taking into consideration. (Osterholm addresses masks at 30:10 in the podcast, and comments on the CDC guidance at 48:30)

[ See guidance from infectious disease specialist Dr. Tim Babinchak ]

Safely reopening a building requires attention to its water system and devices, the CDC advises. Threats include the possibilities of mold, Legionnaires’ disease, and lead or copper infiltration into drinking water. The World Health Organization offers a roadmap to ensure good indoor ventilation, which is key if people will be gathering indoors for extended times.

There are many decisions to be made as churches address the challenges of getting together in person. It is best to be deliberate rather than responding to the latest news cycle (which may change tomorrow). Be safe, and protect your members and your community.

The CDC released new guidance for vaccinated individuals on May 13. Guidance has been changing over the last week, and this does not require immediate change by congregations. The CDC has not yet released updates for businesses, schools, or community gatherings.
It is important to note that Governor Wolf has said that he will not end the mask mandate in Pennsylvania until 70% of eligible persons are vaccinated. Currently, we are at 54% vaccinated.The rest of the governor’s restrictions remain in place until May 31.
As was noted in our webinar this week with Dr. Tim Babinchak, adults who are unvaccinated and children, as well as people with conditions that can lead to more serious disease, are now the population most at risk. Update: Contacted after the CDC announcement, Dr. Babinchak said: “My thoughts and recommendations are not changed by the CDC announcement.” He also stated agreement with the ecumenical protocol described below:
“For the vaccinated, the risk of hospitalization and death are greatly decreased.  However, a significant and unknown number of us remain unvaccinated and thus vulnerable.  The admonition that we all behave as unvaccinated in group settings where the vaccination status of those around is unknown is prudent.  The masks, distancing and hand washing all reduce the risk for all.  In the same lines, singing should still be masked until such time as we can be assured of the vaccinated numbers at services.  As I stated, outdoors is preferable and with distancing and vaccination would not require masks for singing.”
We encourage you to continue acting to protect the safety of your congregation and your community.
Update: “Love Builds Up: In Response to May’s CDC Masking Update” from the Wisconsin Council of Churches (May 13).
The Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship and Sacramental Practices, whose guidance we have been recommending, released the following helpful advice for congregations May 13:

The latest CDC guidance for masks and social distancing is for what INDIVIDUALS CAN do– not what CONGREGATIONS (in which both vaccinated and unvaccinated people gather together) SHOULD do. 

As a Consultation we are committed BOTH to CDC guidance AND to the principle that we will not cause stigma about either illness or vaccination status. We encourage compassion for all who are sick and vaccination, at the soonest time possible, for all who are unvaccinated. 

Many congregations include people who are unvaccinated, including children, older persons who have not yet been able to be vaccinated, and some who have refused vaccination. Unvaccinated people of any age can get the virus and spread it to others who are unvaccinated.  

When we are among those who may be unvaccinated, we recommend being as the unvaccinated for the sake of the unvaccinated– for their safety, and to avoid stigmatizing them.  

We are one body in Christ, no more protected than the least protected among us.  

In concrete terms, whenever we gather in groups that may include non-vaccinated people, we continue to recommend that all wear masks, that households remain six feet apart, and that congregational and choral singing be avoided indoors.  

COVID is not going away, yet we now have effective vaccines and effectual therapies to reduce the incidences of infections and deaths, infectious disease specialist Dr. Tim Babinchak told SEPA leaders in a Zoom conference May 11.

Dr. Babinchak, a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Phoenixville, and retired head of infectious diseases at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, said that there are no zero-risk guarantees and church leaders will have to decide what risks they and their attendees are willing to take in returning to in-person worship.

Update May 15, 2021: Contacted after the CDC announced relaxed guidance for masks, Dr. Babinchak said: “My thoughts and recommendations are not changed by the CDC announcement.” He also stated agreement with the guidance released by ecumenical leaders May 13:

“For the vaccinated, the risk of hospitalization and death are greatly decreased.  However, a significant and unknown number of us remain unvaccinated and thus vulnerable.  The admonition that we all behave as unvaccinated in group settings where the vaccination status of those around is unknown is prudent.  The masks, distancing and hand washing all reduce the risk for all.  In the same lines, singing should still be masked until such time as we can be assured of the vaccinated numbers at services.  As I stated, outdoors is preferable and with distancing and vaccination would not require masks for singing.”

Dr. Babinchak proposed a four-step process for making decisions based on the makeup of a congregation:


Are the people who attend vaccinated or unvaccinated? Do they have underlying conditions that might hamper the effectiveness of vaccines or lead to more serious cases?


Outside is always better than indoors. Sufficient ventilation with outside air to dilute potential virus concentrations is always better than indoors in a poorly or non-ventilated space.


The longer the event, the higher the risk. An hour-long worship service carries different risks than an hours-long meeting or a full-day childcare setting.


In order to minimize the risk to the most vulnerable, continue basic steps of hand-washing, masking, and distancing and consider continuing online avenues of participation for those for whom it may not be wise to attend in-person.

Here Are Some General Takeaways From Dr. Babinchak’s Presentation:

Outdoors gatherings are always safer than indoors. 

People should not attend church if they are sick 

Emphasize hand-washing. Open restrooms or provide other ways for people to wash hands at church.

Wearing masks and maintaining distance will always lower risk

If wearing your mask is comfortable, it’s probably not on correctly. Proper fit is important.

Dr. Babinchak suggested that singing softly and soft liturgical responses with masks is possible indoors and outdoors. Distancing reduces risk.

For vaccinated persons, there should be no issue with sharing communion as usual, Dr. Babinchak said. Provide other options for unvaccinated or vulnerable persons.

Coffee hours and social times are best done outdoors and kept short.

It is safe to return hymnals to the pews. As long as people wash hands and stay home if they are sick, there should be no problem. 

There is little risk of transmission when people move in the sanctuary; for example, to read at the lectern or participate in a children’s sermon. 

Greetings SEPA Synod,

First, thank you for an efficient, and expeditious thirty-third Synod Assembly.  Hearing the latest COVID-19 numbers, cases are still very high across our area.  I am reminded of the television show, Lost in Space.  I remember the robot calling out in caution to the young traveler: “Danger, danger, Will Robinson.”

Let me offer a word of caution as we journey into warmer weather, with more of us being vaccinated and a strong pull for returning to in-person worship.  I know we are all weary of looking at screens, we want to see our church family, we want to gather at the communion table as one.  

Please be patient, we can do this a little while longer. These new covid variants are much more contagious.  I am appealing to you, be mindful of our stewardship of life, as disciples.  What is stewardship of life?  It’s “an abiding perspective on the mutuality of life in human society; a personal stance and attitude that defines an obligation to serve and take responsibility for all we have been given.” 

Although many of us have been vaccinated, we must still wear our masks, and physically distance to keep others safe. 

Please continue to follow the CDC and ecumenical guidelines as listed below.

Stay blessed and stay safe. 

+ The Rev. Patricia A. Davenport,

CDC Issues New Guidance For Safe Indoor And Outdoor Gatherings

This week the CDC issued new guidance for how people who are fully vaccinated can resume many activities, and indicating how relatively safe those activities are for people who are unvaccinated.

“New CDC guidance frees vaccinated individuals and raises questions for congregational leaders,” the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacramental Practices wrote in a Facebook Post April 28.

“Do congregations continue to ask all to wear masks, indoors or outdoors, for the sake of those present who may be unvaccinated?  Do they allow some or nearly all ministries to be ONLY for those who are vaccinated? What does that do? What does that say?  Do they allow vaccinated persons NOT to wear masks outdoors except for larger gatherings, or, for the sake of not pointing out or endangering those not vaccinated, continue to require masks at all gatherings, indoors or outdoors?

“The answers are not easy. All involve some form of trade-off.”

The Consultation met April 27 to discuss the implications of the CDC guidance. [ Watch the conversation here. ] The group expects to issue updated protocols by early June.

In the meantime, the consultation’s current guidance offers metrics for considering returning to in-person outdoor or indoor worship. The guidance notes that limited outdoor or indoor worship gatherings with people outside one’s household may be safe if all three of the criteria in the appropriate column of the graphic below are met.
Indoor 10 new cases per 100K, 5% positive tests, 70% ICU. Outdoor 20 cases, 10% positive tests, 80% ICU.

Graphic updated March 3, 2021

This guidance assumes that worshippers who gather

  • properly wear a mask, two masks if indoors
  • maintain at least 6-feet of distance from others outside of their household
  • have no COVID symptoms or known exposure to people with symptoms or a positive test result
  • refrain from congregational singing indoors

The bishop recommends that worship leaders and congregants gathering in-person adhere to the CDC’s advice for masking.

Ecumenical Consultation documents:

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