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Iowa United Methodist Conference Re-Entry Updates
Dear Clergy and Laity of the Iowa Conference of The United Methodist Church,
Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, our healer and our hope.
As the spread of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus continues across our beloved state, nation and world, I am writing to give both a word of encouragement and also cautionary guidance as we seek to care for our churches and communities throughout Iowa.
In my recent Epiphany address, I indicated the pandemic continues to be one of the major challenges facing the church today. Just for perspective, in the last seven days, statewide there have been 24,935 new positive tests reported; unfortunately this means we are also seeing a significant increase in hospitalizations. As you may know from reporting from the CDC and Iowa Public Health officials, vaccinations and mask wearing are the two most critical means of caring for others and for yourself as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in our communities and world. To view the Iowa data, you can follow this link: https://coronavirus.iowa.gov/.
In response to the rise of cases in our state, I strongly urge our churches to continue or return to the practice of masking for worship and for all events happening in your local churches. There may also be faith communities who choose at this time to move to remote only options for ministry. On the whole, I want the leadership teams in our churches to make the best call for your context on when to be in-person or online as we ride out this current wave of the pandemic.
Dear ones, I know the effects of pandemic exhaustion and covid fatigue are being felt at every level of our church and society and are affecting us mind, body and spirit. We may find ourselves in the company of deep grief or discouragement as we look at the toll of the pandemic on human life, our education system, our healthcare system and all those showing up day-to-day to do the work before them. If you or they are overwhelmed and are in need of mental health support, please reach out to your local provider or to the helpline of NAMI Iowa found at https://namiiowa.org/. I cannot even begin to adequately express how proud and inspired I am by you and by the ministry you continue to offer across the conference; you have been a witness of hope, compassion and resilience since the arrival of the COVID-19 in the U.S. in January, 2020. Pastors, if you are in need of an extra level of support, please reach out to your District Superintendent so that we can get you properly and adequately resourced.
While I don’t know that any of us anticipated the pandemic lasting into a third year, I do believe we have and will continue to see the goodness of God and God’s people at work through the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church. This is evidenced every time we show up for one another and in our communities embodying hope made real as we care for our neighbors both near and far.
Finally, as disciples of Jesus, may we do our part to promote the resources and guidance made available through public health, attend to the spiritual and temporal needs of all generations - especially the most vulnerable, and, witness in our communities and beyond on behalf of the One known as the healer from Galilee, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
We pray for your health and the healing of our nation as the rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant is causing strain on hospitals and healthcare facilities. As schools begin to reopen, we also pray for children who have not reached vaccination age.
To maximize protection against the Delta variant, the Iowa Conference COVID-19 Re-entry Team encourages you to follow the Centers for Disease Controls (CDC) guidance for fully vaccinated people. The CDC recommends that "everyone wear a mask in indoor public settings in areas of substantial and high transmission, regardless of vaccination status. This decision was made with the data and science available to the CDC at the time, including a valuable public health partnership resulting in rapid receipt and review of unpublished data.”
As most Iowa counties are now in substantial to high rates of COVID-19 transmission, we recommend wearing a mask for worship and indoor activities in our Iowa United Methodist churches. While severe illness is not likely in fully vaccinated persons, there are new documented cases of fully vaccinated persons transmitting the Delta variant of the virus to unvaccinated people who can become gravely ill. Given we still have a substantial number of unvaccinated people in Iowa, including children under the age of 11, the wearing of masks in worship seems a small sacrifice to care for our neighbors and friends at church.
We remember the words of Jesus after he states the first and greatest commandment to love God; “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” — Mark 12:31. Loving God and neighbor are central commandments in the Christian faith and mark us as followers of Jesus.
We know the road has been long and we are again reminded that we have further to go, but we share this journey with Christ. We may never know who we might save by wearing a mask at indoor gatherings. Neither might we know we have carried the virus to another. We will surely know if we have done what we can to prevent it.
Thank you for doing all that you can to care for your neighbor and the children among us. We pray for our schools to resume with healthy children and for them to remain that way. We pray for you and all of your neighbors and for the hastening of the day when the COVID-19 virus will be a threat no more.
As of March 4, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported 598 new positive COVID-19 tests and 35 additional deaths. The state reports 742,386 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Iowa, with 196,084 individuals completing their vaccine series. Additionally, vaccines Iowa’s virus positivity rates continue to hover around 4%. The 14-day average dropped from 4.2% to 4.1%. The 7-day average fell from 4.1% to 4.0%. State data shows 4,105,183 COVID-19 tests have been administered in Iowa.
The Iowa United Methodist Conference recommends a cautionary return as you reconvene or expand in-person gatherings; the majority of Iowa churches remain in Yellow Light Status.
Level 2: Yellow Light Status - Cautionary Return - We anticipate this will cover a number of months and likely last through summer 2021, if not longer. As the IAUMC, we want to “Do Good” as restrictions lift. This means a gradual return to gatherings and doing so in a cautionary manner.
Level 1: Green Light Status - When we finally reach the “Do No Harm” phase, it will be because the virus is contained and our people are safe. When we get here, churches/faith communities will have returned to full activity, and mass gatherings without precautions will be permitted. This will be in place only as church leadership is confident in the care of their community of faith and that positivity rates have been below 5% for at least one month, AND vaccination rates are at 75-80% in your county (recommended standard as herd immunity is potential once this percentage is attained). Green lighting for all activities will likely be guided by the testing protocol for asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers, antibody testing, therapeutic drug therapies aggressively caring for those who have contracted COVID-19, and approval and availability of a COVID-19 vaccine.
WHERE ARE WE? We receive a common question from church leadership and pastors is “Which phase of reopening are we in?” and “How do we plan for reentry moving from yellow to green phase?” Be aware that whatever county you are in, we can continue to track county numbers at https://iowacovid19tracker.org/.
WHAT DO WE DO TO BEGIN GRADUAL REENTRY:
Based on our conversations with public health experts regarding current conditions and what prudent for the care of faith communities, we do encourage the following:
On Friday, February 5, 2021, Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds signed a new Public Health Disaster proclamation, effective February 7, 2021, that relaxes the state’s limited mask requirements, social distancing requirements, and limits on gatherings. The proclamation strongly encourages Iowans, businesses, and organizations to take reasonable public health measures consistent with guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health.
In her proclamation Governor Reynolds states, “I continue to strongly encourage all vulnerable Iowans, including those with preexisting medical conditions and those over than 65, in all counties of the state to continue to limit their activities outside of their home, including their visits to businesses and other establishments and their participation in gatherings of any size and any purpose. And I encourage all Iowans to limit their in-person interactions with vulnerable Iowans and to exercise particular care and caution when engaging in any necessary interactions.”
Although this proclamation loosens restrictions on social distancing and gatherings and puts those requirements in the hands of those who are organizing the gathering to “take reasonable measures to protect those who attend,” the Iowa Annual Conference’s Re-entry Team strongly encourages our congregations to remain in the Yellow Light Status and continue to physically distance, mask, and adhere to the Yellow Status protocols.
To the clergy and congregations of the Iowa Annual Conference:
We would like to thank you for your faithful response to the November 18th directive from Bishop Laurie Haller and the Appointive Cabinet that paused in-person worship and church activities through January 10th. You may recall this decision was made in response to worsening COVID-19 positivity rates across the state and the profound pressures being placed on our healthcare systems and frontline workers. We deeply appreciate the ways in which you partnered together through Advent, Christmas Season and Epiphany to provide virtual worship, small group opportunities, and resourcing our local faith communities with pastoral care, stewardship planning and connecting with your broader community during this hard and holy time. After consulting with local leaders and healthcare personnel - and in review of reported numbers across the state - this directive will be lifted with a return to yellow status after January 10th.
To determine your best next steps as a local congregation, you are encouraged to return to the 3-2-1 Re-Entry Guideline available on the Conference Website and would ask your local re-entry leadership teams to review your county/public health numbers, hospitalizations, ICU bed availability and covid-related deaths as you make your re-entry decisions.
Our recommendation is that for churches located in counties with positivity rates at or below 15.0 percent - and review and implementation of your protocols - you may choose to resume in-person worship and gatherings with appropriate safety protocols of masking, physical distancing and other recommended safety procedures in place. For counties where case positivity rates are above 15.0 percent, it is requested these congregations consider remaining in the red. To review your county data, go to:
Iowa Covid Tracker at: https://iowacovid19tracker.org/
https://coronavirus.iowa.gov/pages/percent-school-district-positive-analysis from Iowa agencies.
You will find there are inconsistencies in the reports as these groups are following and reporting their information/metrics differently. Look for pieces of information that are confirmed between two or more sites.
Additionally, we would encourage your leadership to access the Vaccine education and availability guidelines from the Iowa Department of Public Health and share this resource with your congregations. Also, to encourage your faith community to get their flu shots if they have not yet done so.
For updated information from the Iowa Department of Public Health, go to: https://idph.iowa.gov/emerging-health-issues/novel-coronavirus
Bishop Laurie and the Appointive Cabinet
In support of Governor Kim Reynolds’ Public Health Proclamation on November 10, 2020, the input that we are getting from health professionals, and the awareness that our Iowa hospitals are reaching or are at capacity to accept new patients, the Iowa Conference of The United Methodist Church has made the prayerful and careful decision to mandate masks/face coverings for all gatherings. This includes all in-person local church worship, meetings, and groups occurring in United Methodist Churches throughout the Conference.
We have given consideration to Section 5.E of the Governor’s Proclamation that speaks directly to the faith communities of our state. In this section, Governor Reynolds clearly states that religious gatherings are not prohibited. Additionally, Governor Reynolds is clear that faith communities “shall implement reasonable measures under the circumstances of each gathering to ensure social distancing of employees, volunteers, and other participants, increased hygiene practices, and other public health measures to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 consistent with guidance issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health.”
It is the position of Bishop Laurie Haller and the Appointive Cabinet that while there are set aside considerations for faith communities in this proclamation, the following Sections do inform what is meant by reasonable measures:
For these reasons, we advise that in-person worship be suspended if your county statistics are in the Red category. However, if church re-entry leadership teams determine that in-person church gatherings can continue, masks, physical distancing, and other hygiene protocols will be required in our United Methodist Churches, beginning November 11, 2020 at 12:01 a.m.
To access the pdf of the Governor’s mandate, follow this link: https://coronavirus.iowa.gov/pages/proclamations.
For assistance in determining your COVID-19 recovery phase, watch this video created by Rev. Katie Dawson of Immanuel UMC in Des Moines that talks you through the process.
The Iowa Conference of The United Methodist Church offers this November addendum to the3-2-1 Reentry Plan. This addendum was developed in consultation with the Extended Cabinet of the Iowa United Methodist Conference and in review of reports by leading epidemiologists in Iowa, analysis of updates from medical researchers and public health organizations across the state and nation, and in discernment of resources provided by the major coronavirus outlets including the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the Iowa Governor’s Office.
INFORMATION FROM THE WHITE HOUSE TASK FORCE AND THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE INCLUDING THEIR RECOMMENDED GUIDANCE TO IOWA.
As of November 1, 2020, the White House Coronavirus Task Force reported Iowa continues in the Red Zone. Iowa is currently 6th in the nation for new coronavirus cases per capita (more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents) and 5th in the nation for test positivity (more than 10% of diagnostic tests are positive). What the White House report means is that 99% of Iowa Counties are reporting high or moderate levels of community coronavirus transmission. The White House Task Force recommended the following key practices: "Do not gather without a mask with individuals living outside of your household," "Always wear a mask in public places," and, "Stop gatherings beyond immediate household until cases and test positivity decrease significantly." For additional information from the White House Task Force, please go to: https://www.coronavirus.gov/.
In Governor Kim Reynolds’ update this week, medical professionals on the state team indicated the next three weeks are critical across the state. The Governor’s Office is asking all of Iowa to do their part in mitigating transmission of this disease, including limiting contact with persons who live outside of your household. https://www.weareiowa.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/iowa-white-house-coronavirus-task-force-report-october-25-cases-test-positivity-data-hospitalizations-community-spread/524-094b1b29-13e0-4c33-988a-5999d71a38b9
Critical takeaways to share with leadership in your local setting:
WHAT DOES RED ZONE MEAN FOR OUR LOCAL CHURCHES?
As has been and will continue to be the guidance from the Crisis Response Team and the 3-2-1 Reentry Plan that when your county is in the Red Zone, refraining from public gatherings, including indoor worship and other in-person activities is advised.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY CHURCH IS IN A RED ZONE COUNTY?
For help in determining your up-to-date county numbers/status, please visit: https://globalepidemics.org/. As of this writing, all 99 Iowa Counties are identified as red.
This site has divided Iowa into four quadrants based on congressional districts and tracks the 7-day moving average. Numbers recorded on November 5, 2020. NE - 693 new cases each day; NW - 582 new cases each day; SE - 446 new cases each day and SW 475 new cases each day.
WHAT ADDITIONAL INFORMATION WILL RESOURCE OUR DECISIONS?
This site will give you the % Positive Case Analysis for school districts (for those aligning their protocols/best practices to your school district), as well as, % Positive Cases by County (for those aligning their protocols/best practices to your public health partners). This analysis is based upon the previous 14-day-period. If your county is trending upward 15% or higher you have likely moved through the Orange Zone of accelerated spread and are nearing or have arrived at the Red Zone. At the Red Zone, it is advised that you do not gather for in-person worship and that groups needed for leadership of worship and day-to-day operations should be masked and physically distanced from each other.
Critical takeaways to share with leadership in your local setting:
WHAT IF THE PASTOR, STAFF MEMBER OR MEMBER OR ONE OF THEIR HOUSEHOLD MEMBERS IS AT HIGH RISK?
Staff Pastor Parish Committees and Church Leadership teams are to be in conversation with their pastor and members of their household to determine best practice and ways to support those who may have health risks in part of the vulnerable population. When pre-existing conditions exist for the pastor and/or their members of their household, including church staff, it may mean they must refrain from in-person worship as they care for self or family members. If it is determined your pastor/family is at-risk, please be in contact with your District Superintendent to create or report on your plan of care and the ongoing coverage of ministry.
IN MY CARE OF MY COMMUNITY, HOW CAN I BEST TRACK INFORMATION AND REVIEW OUR STATE TRENDS?
There are two sites that have been most helpful to local assessment of Covid-19 conditions in your area: Iowa Covid-19 Tracker (14-day trends) and Johns Hopkins (7-day trends). Reading these sites in tandem while planning for local response has proven beneficial for many faith communities across Iowa. It has been noted that the Harvard dashboard uses a 7-day average for positivity which makes the numbers fluctuate more quickly than some other reporting agencies that are using a 14-day average for positivity. When you access these sites for data collection, there may be times when counties are showing in the "Red Zone" on the Harvard site and you might note that you aren't in the "Red Zone" on other sites that is using a 14-day average - this is an indicator you are moving toward Red. For the most part, however, the trends are in sync and make sense when held together - this is why we recommend tracking both 7-day and 14-day trackers.
The Iowa Covid-19 tracker is an excellent dashboard of the big picture in Iowa. This site is full of data that is provided by Sara Anne Willette and Auriel A. Willette from Iowa. This dashboard was developed out of a personal passion to care for the state of Iowa with data-driven facts. This keepers of this site also post twice daily on Facebook around 12 PM and 12 AM and also livestreams data updates and provides downloads during the 10 AM/PM hour.
John Hopkins hosts an accessible site and has become a respected, fact-gathering resource. They do heavy lifting on this one tracking state trends for our local leaders. This resource is recommended if you want to track and report Past Day/Past Week/Past Month trends for your local reentry team. For example, at the time of this report, Past Day numbers for Iowa are: 2,888 new cases and 21 deaths; Past Week numbers from Oct 25-Oct 31 include: 16,579 new cases, 110 new deaths, 41.96% state-wide positivity rate; this mean 4/10 tests did come back as positive. This will also show that the current week is trending at 45.58% state-wide positivity rate that supports the data showing Iowa is on a rapid increase for cases.
 If you would like to read more on the Governor’s update or access the full White House Task Force report, go to this site. For the full report, scroll to the bottom of the article. https://www.weareiowa.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/iowa-white-house-coronavirus-task-force-report-abc-news-november-1/524-f65490a5-8750-474f-81f0-6bcebb71926c
"Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can."
~ John Wesley
Level 3: Red Light Status- Stop all non-critical gatherings. Essential workers only. This is the Stay in love with God and Stay Home phase of our ministry. Right now it is best to err on the side of distancing even as we have received new guidelines from the Iowa Governor’s Office.
Level 2: Yellow Light Satus - Cautionary Return - We anticipate this will cover a number of months. As the IAUMC, we want to “Do Good” as restrictions are lifted. This means a gradual return to gatherings and doing so in a cautionary manner.
Level 1: Green Light Status - When we finally reach the “Do No Harm” phase - it will be because the virus is contained and our people are safe. Permission will be granted to communities of faith to return to full activity and mass gatherings will be permitted. This will be in place only as church leadership is confident in the care of their community of faith. Green lighting for all activities will likely be guided by testing protocol for asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers, antibody testing, therapeutic drug therapies aggressively caring for those who have contracted COVID-19, and approval and availability of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The Iowa Conference of The United Methodist Church recognizes returning to full participation will be based on the oversight of the Office of the Bishop, Crisis Response Team, state and national guidelines, as well as the seasonal movement of the virus. It is our expectation pastoral and laity will read through this document together allowing it to guide the response of your local faith community.