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For many immunocompromised, churches have ceased to be a safe place

As states across the country lift covid-19 precautions such as mask mandates and some churches have abandoned online services, the immunocompromised are weighing their risk of possible exposure in worship services. And some find that their fellow parishioners and church leaders are not taking steps to protect them.

Andrea Ramsey attended a non-denominational church in DC where, before the pandemic, she was asked to speak to the church about living with a chronic illness that prevents her from working. Ramsey has hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which causes problems with her immune system.

Ramsey’s church had formed small online groups in the early months of the pandemic that became a lifeline for it, but leaders shut down the groups in 2021 to encourage people to worship in person.

“When they cut the home groups, it was like, wait a minute, this place that was taking care of me and my situation was trying to move on without us,” said Ramsey, who is 44.

His church initially required masks, but many would ignore the mandate.

“I’ve been in church situations where I’ve been accused of not having enough faith,” she said. “I never had that sense of this church. It was when we were a year and a half into the things that I noticed, we don’t talk about vaccination in the pulpit. We do not enforce mask mandates.

She said other things caused her to leave her church recently, but the way leaders have dealt with covid-19 has made her lose confidence.

“They greeted each other at a rally and said, ‘Come on, you can kiss, we don’t need to be scared,'” she said. ” It pissed me off. We don’t need to be afraid, but we need to be careful. This is one of the incidents that made me realize that this will not be a safe place for me.

Those who are immunocompromised are not a monolith and experience varying degrees of immunosuppression that could impact their response to the virus, said Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Someone who has a cancer like lymphoma and doesn’t respond well to the coronavirus vaccine, for example, is likely at higher risk than someone taking an immunosuppressive drug for something like Crohn’s disease.

Moreover, many circumstances have changed since the early days of the pandemic, Bhattacharya said. Vaccinations tend not to provide the same level of antibodies to an immunocompromised person as someone else, but they still reduce the chances of the person becoming ill or becoming seriously ill. High-quality masks like N95 masks, which are more effective than cloth ones, are more available. Doctors have access to newer treatments, although some are less available.

Bhattacharya said he doesn’t like to wonder if something is “safe” or not. Instead, he encourages people to consider their range of risks. It encourages people to ask questions, including:

How important is activity to you? What is the community transmission rate? Does the building have good ventilation? What can you do to reduce the risk of infection, such as wearing a high quality mask? Can you ask your doctor before a possible infection if he has access to drugs like Paxlovid or Sotrovimab?

“People are reassessing their own risk tolerance for different activities,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable saying what they should or shouldn’t do. There are things you can do to reduce your risk, knowing that there is a risk.

Many immunocompromised people still choose to attend in-person services, including 19-year-old Jaye Maxey Sanchez, who has visited Baptist and non-denominational churches in her new town of San Marcos, where she is a freshman in Texas. State University. Sanchez suffers from arthritis, fibromyalgia and gastroparesis, and takes drugs that weaken his immune system. Her rheumatologist, who is a Christian, did not discourage her from attending services.

Sanchez said she used to wear a mask in church but decided to quit because no one else would wear one, and the people she hangs out with are friends who she is with. she hangs out during the week anyway.

“If I wore a mask, people might think I was contagious or sick,” she said. “I feel normal to wear a mask at school. But because people don’t wear them to church, it feels a little weird.

Raised in a Christian home, the church has long been an important source of community for her. She contracted and recovered from covid-19 in early January during a church retreat where she believes she contracted it by removing her mask to eat and drink.

“Sometimes I wish we would mask up during seasons when the flu is also high and everyone is getting sick so we can protect each other. Because Texas is so conservative, it changes the churches,” she said. “I think when people think of vaccines and masks, they think of themselves, not doing it to protect others too.”

Others stayed away from in-person services altogether. Tory Cross, 28, who has asthma and takes medication that makes her immune-compromised, said her pulmonologist warned her against services so she hasn’t been in person since the pandemic began . Just two years earlier, she had found her ideal church. After exploring the Catholic tradition, she began attending an Episcopal church in San Francisco in 2018 that aligned with her progressive values.

“I wanted a community that would hold my queerness. It felt very safe, like a place where I could belong. I spent time in the AIDS memorial chapel thinking about gay ancestors,” she said. “I could never go back.”

Cross moved to DC in the summer of 2021, and with the district’s mask mandate soon to be lifted, she’s hesitant to find a new church.

“I was too scared to try,” she said.

The Episcopal Diocese of Washington has a universal restriction against using the common chalice that contains wine for communion, but otherwise it allows leaders to follow local guidelines on whether to require masks and other measures. of public health, Bishop Mariann Budde said. She says she has heard from people from all walks of life and empowers clergy to make decisions based on the needs of their community.

Budde said she wanted to create as safe an environment as possible, but “we cannot create a perfectly safe environment for immunocompromised people. We cannot dictate our entire congregations based on this population alone. We must serve everyone,” Budde said. “We need to allow those who are compromised to make their own decisions.”

Trying to make accommodations for everyone has been tricky, said Jon Saur, pastor of a Presbyterian Church (USA) in Simi Valley, California. medication for rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 18.

“It is better to be a step too cautious than a step too risky. It guided everything,” said Saur, who is 38. “I know there are people who are in the same position as me who look around and say, the church I went to don’t understand what my life is like. to like.”

His church is following local county guidelines, so the church will soon transition to mask-optional for those who are vaccinated, though he said he plans to continue holding an outdoor service during the pandemic.

He wears a double KN95 mask and asks the staff to wear masks so that someone in the back does not have to feel uncomfortable if he is the only one doing it.

“We have people who are attached to the sanctuary,” he said. “Some people have been here for 60 or 70 years. We try to make it as safe as possible so they can be in that space.

When her teenage son was diagnosed with cancer as an infant, members of Rachel Gillen’s Lutheran Church in Fargo, ND provided meals, bought gift cards and sent gifts. As a transplant survivor, her son is severely immunocompromised and received a fourth dose of a coronavirus vaccine. They chose to stay home from church. As the Gillen community began to grow more resistant to wearing masks, people stopped wearing them in church.

“They supported our family when he had cancer,” she said. “But asking people to wear masks so we could attend was too much to ask. It was painful. It’s a bit like losing a side of your family.

Staff at her church have been accommodating, she said, and they wear masks when she comes into work as an administrative assistant. The leaders asked if they should require masks for the youth group, but his son thinks they will make the change just for him and it would make him too embarrassed, so he thinks it’s easier not to. go there at all. The pastor started a mandatory monthly mask service which they tried to attend, but Gillen found mask adherence was so low they couldn’t risk it.

Her teenagers will watch the services online, but she said it was difficult to get much participation in singing or liturgy in a living room.

“According to the teachings of Jesus, churches should be the safest places for vulnerable people,” she said. “That hasn’t been the case during the pandemic, and it’s been difficult. I fear a lasting impact this could have on my children. And me. On each of us.