In A Bone To Evangelicals, CDC Drops Warning About COVID-19 Risks In Choirs

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday suddenly dropped its warning about the risk of choirs spreading COVID-19 at religious services after being told to do so by White House officials, The Washington Post reported.

The warning was omitted even though choirs can become “super-spreader” events infecting large groups of people at once. Singing can increase the intensity of “aerosol emission” of the coronavirus. Nearly all 61 members of a choir in Washington state became infected with COVID-19 after a single rehearsal in March, a CDC study found. Two people died. 

The CDC just last Friday issued safety guidelines for restarting religious services. It recommended then that religious communities “consider suspending or at least decreasing use of choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services or other programming.” (The original guidelines are available via web archive.)

The “act of singing may contribute to transmission of COVID-19, possibly through emission of aerosols,” the CDC warned.

But those guidelines suddenly vanished. 

Sources told the Post that the CDC was ordered by White House officials to make the change.

But a source insisted to NPR that the CDC “posted the wrong version of the guidance,” adding: “The version that is currently up on the website is the version cleared by the White House.”

The guidelines no longer recommend suspending choirs. Now the CDC simply urges that faith-based organizations promote “social distancing at services and other gatherings, ensuring that clergy, staff, choir, volunteers and attendees at the services follow social distancing … to lessen their risk.”

Communicable disease expert Lea Hamner of Skagit County Public Health, the lead author of the CDC Washington choir report, told NPR she is worried about the changes — and reopening houses of worship.

“As a public health official, I would strongly encourage that religious services continue to happen remotely or in cars,” she wrote in an email. Large group gatherings should “not take place unless strict safety measures are put in place such as physical distancing, wearing face coverings or masks, providing tools for excellent hand hygiene, and not attending while ill,” she added.

President Donald Trump last week deemed houses of worship “essential places that provide essential services” that he said must be reopened “right now.” He threatened to “override governors” if they ignored his demand.

Sources told Politico that he made the move to shore up support from the religious right, which was beginning to slip away. 

The choir changes were also a push by White House officials not to alienate the evangelical community, the Post reported, regardless of increased health risks.

The CDC earlier this month issued a report warning about “super-spreader” events where the coronavirus might be “highly transmissible in certain settings, including group singing events.” The study detailed the contagion of 52 of 61 singers at a single choir practice in Washington state in March.

“Choir practice attendees had multiple opportunities for droplet transmission from close contact … and the act of singing itself might have contributed to SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” the study noted. “Aerosol emission during speech has been correlated with loudness of vocalization, and certain persons, who release an order of magnitude more particles than their peers, have been referred to as super-emitters and have been hypothesized to contribute to super-spreading events. Members had an intense and prolonged exposure, singing while sitting 6–10 inches from one another, possibly emitting aerosols.”

Other events at houses of worship also risk spreading the coronavirus. A CDC study last week revealed that COVID-19 cases first contracted by a pastor and his wife ended up spreading to 35 others who attended events at their rural Arkansas church. Three people died.  

An additional 26 cases in the community occurred among people who had contact with those who participated in the church events. One of them also died.

“This outbreak highlights the potential for widespread transmission of … the virus that causes COVID-19, both at group gatherings during church events and within the broader community,” the study warned. “These findings underscore the opportunity for faith-based organizations to prevent COVID-19 by following local authorities’ guidance and the U.S. Government’s Guidelines.”

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