Dear Friends in Christ:
Last Sunday was Septuagesima Sunday, an ancient commemoration that means Easter Sunday is just about 70 days away. In our region, it comes in the dead of winter, when we know we have a long way to go, but it brings with it the promise of eventual spring.
This year, Septuagesima Sunday felt particularly appropriate, since it came not only in the midst of a snowstorm, but also during our long, hard season of struggling against the COVID-19 pandemic. As you know from local news reports, infection and hospitalization rates in Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York have fallen from the record-setting numbers we saw in December and January, but are still dramatically higher than the rates we experienced in the summer and early fall. For example, the COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool from the Georgia Institute of Technology indicates that right now, a gathering of 50 people in Niagara County, NY, has a 57% chance of including someone who has COVID-19.
High caseloads, together with warnings about new, more contagious variants of the virus now present in both New York and Pennsylvania, make it far too likely that in-person worship services could endanger the health of congregation members, especially those at high risk. Therefore, I am extending the suspension of in-person worship and meetings until further notice. We must continue to protect the safety of the most vulnerable people in our congregations and communities, and we can best do that by worshipping online from home. Our lifesaving feeding and sobriety ministries may continue in-person according to the requirements of our reopening plan, and I ask that you continue to pray for everyone involved in these programs, where we have experienced several COVID-19 exposures.
I know that this will be disappointing to some of you who long to be together in person. I, too, am eager to return to in-person worship and activities at church. But during the pandemic, we have watched far too many people in our diocesan partnership become seriously ill with the virus, and comforted far too many others whose loved ones have died. Although staying home from church is a hardship, it does not approach the grief that these families will live with forever. If we can spare even one family that ordeal, I hope that we will all do it gladly.
There is, however, reason for hope. Approved vaccines have been found to be highly effective in preventing serious COVID-19 illness, and while the vaccine is in shorter supply than hoped for, it is being administered to first responders, vulnerable people and others in most urgent need. In Pennsylvania, clergy and other essential church workers have been prioritized to receive the vaccine, and I am working actively with local health authorities to arrange vaccination for those who must work in our buildings. In New York, guidelines do not single out clergy and church workers for priority vaccination, but we are nonetheless working to help our church workers be vaccinated as soon as permitted. Based on current projections, however, it will be several months until the vaccine will be available to most people in our congregations.
Since the pandemic began, we have learned a good deal about how to worship and build community online. I will continue to host Sunday worship each week at 10 a.m. on Zoom, and I hope that you will join us via video or phone whenever you can. On Ash Wednesday, February 17, leaders from across our diocesan partnership will hold a day-long vigil on Zoom, and at 7 p.m., I will lead a service to mark the beginning of Lent. We have encouraged clergy not to impose ashes in person, but instead invite congregations to distribute ashes in advance for people to impose at home or to observe the day without ashes.
Until we can reopen our buildings safely, you can find more opportunities to worship, study and gather with Episcopalians from across our region on the website, and I hope that you will take part whenever you can. Although online gatherings are not the same as being together in person, they can be remarkably helpful in strengthening our congregations and curbing the sense of isolation that we have all felt at some point since last March.
Thank you for your love for our church and your steadfast commitment to our common life in these most difficult times. I pray that soon we will all be able to return to our buildings safely with the knowledge that we did everything we could to save the lives of people in our communities.