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As churches move forward with Christmas services, experts urge caution

If you go to church on Christmas, you might want to think twice, public health experts say.

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If you go to church on Christmas, you might want to think twice, public health experts say.

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Exempted from Ontario’s vaccine passport laws, many churches are not planning to require proof of immunization from parishioners, even amid a wave of Omicron variants that has spiked the number of daily cases in London.

“COVID-19 is transmitted very quickly. . . . For places of worship, proof of vaccination, downsizing or holding virtual services are ways to minimize the risk as much as possible, ”said Alex Summers, Acting Medical Officer of Health at Middlesex-London Health Unit .

“It’s safe to assume that at least one person at a public gathering right now is incubating or transmitting COVID-19. In light of this, every indoor public gathering we attend puts us, individually and collectively, at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. “

The London Area Health Service on Thursday reported 263 new cases of COVID-19, its highest number of cases in the pandemic in a single day. The total exceeds the previous record of 228 cases set on Wednesday. No new deaths were reported over the two days.

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While physical distancing, 50% capacity limits, and face masks are in full force, neither the Roman Catholic Diocese of London nor the Anglican Diocese of Huron require worshipers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. and do not plan to request proof of vaccination soon.

“We have maintained a policy of filling our churches to the point that we can assure individuals or groups or physical distancing, and we will continue to do so,” said Matthew Clarke, communications director for the Diocese of London, which has over 100 churches in southwestern Ontario.

Under provincial rules, the diocese had the option of requiring proof of vaccination to function at full capacity, but chose not to do so because it did not want to “divide,” Clarke said.

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The diocese plans to hold in-person services unless the provincial government orders it to close, Clarke said. Church worshipers are screened for COVID symptoms at the door, Clarke said, and the Anglican and Catholic dioceses are asking people to reserve seats in advance.

All staff and volunteers in the Anglican and Catholic Dioceses should have their doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Many churches have offered online streaming options to parishioners throughout the pandemic.

In response to the record increase in COVID-19 cases in the London area, Bishop of the Diocese of Huron Todd Townshend is leaving the decision to hold in-person worship this Christmas until each of his 160 churches in the region.

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The Anglican Ascension Church in London has cut its in-person Christmas Eve service due to the local case spike. Dundas Street Church was planning a service with 50 people, but canceled it Wednesday night as a precaution.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that we are taking this step to basically protect our members and the people who come to pray,” said Philip Templeton, founding member of the church and member of its audiovisual team.

“It was the right and responsible thing to do,” he said. “Even though it’s Christmas Eve, it means we’ve kept people from getting sick.”

Even though he’s fully vaccinated, Templeton said he’s worried about being inside with potentially unvaccinated parishioners as Omicron spreads in the community. He said other churches in the area should follow suit and stick with virtual service.

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“It allows us to worship another day,” he said.

Unlike restaurants, gymnasiums and other indoor meeting spaces, places of worship are not required to require proof of vaccination from participants under the Ontario Reopening Act, but may register to register. they want it.

The vaccine passport system went into effect in Ontario on September 22, months before the arrival of the hyper-contagious variant of Omicron.

In response to the exponential spike in COVID-19 cases, the province capped the capacity of shopping malls, grocery stores and indoor public places requiring proof of vaccination, such as restaurants and gyms, to 50% last week.

The omission of places of worship from the list is not based on science, according to an expert.

“It makes good sense. You don’t want people flocking inside in large numbers right now. It doesn’t matter if it’s a retail business, a church, a mosque, a synagogue or a Christmas party, ”said David Fisman, professor of epidemiology at Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

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“These are clearly political rather than medical decisions.”

With the ability of the Omicron variant to infect even fully vaccinated people, deciding to go in person this Christmas is a risk regardless of vaccination status, said Saverio Stranges, president of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry from Western University.

“Should churches be closed at this point? I think maybe, ”Stranges said, but“ everyone has to make that kind of judgment in terms of individual risk factors. “

The elderly and those with high-risk health conditions “should be very careful, as no proof of vaccination is required,” he said.

– with files by Jennifer Bieman, The London Free Press

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