Topeka pastor questions reports that say congregations are COVID-19 hot spots

The Rev. Jon Bruss, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Topeka, questions religious congregations being included in coronavirus hot spots.
Published: Jul. 26, 2020 at 10:06 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - A Topeka pastor whose church has been meeting with restrictions all the way through the coronavirus pandemic is taking exception with reports labeling religious congregations as hot spots for COVID-19.

The Rev. Jon Bruss, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, 901 S.W. Fillmore, is questioning recent reports describing religious congregations as being “hotbeds” of COVID-19 clusters.

“A New York Times article came out recently where they said ‘Churches now a major source of coronavirus clusters,’ and they cite 40 clusters through the country with a total of 650 cases,” Bruss said. “If you do the math on like 3 million cases at the time when that was written, that’s a minuscule amount.”

Bruss says he would like to know the extent to which churches and other religious congregations are hot spots for COVID-19 in Kansas. However, he says, that specific information isn’t available from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which doesn’t offer a breakout of the number of clusters occurring in religious congregations.

“When we try to find out when and under what conditions those clusters emerged,” he says, “we just can’t get it from KDHE.”

He added that it would be “really helpful” for KDHE to report churches as a “separate category” of clusters.

“If we knew that of the 47 groups today that have been identified as clusters, if we knew that 45 of those were churches, wow, that would change the way that we think about this,” Bruss said. “But if we knew that it was four or five, and they happened all as the ones that are in the public reporting – all of them occurred early in March – and so if that’s all there is and the churches have been really behaving themselves, that would be nice, too.

“Frankly, it’s really difficult for Christians and I would say that anybody who worships together – Jews or Muslims – in the state of Kansas, as they hear these things, this creates potentially an undue fear in them from returning to church. I know that all the churches are struggling with that right now.”

Bruss says his congregation has met with as few as 10 people for worship services, with ongoing precautions being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 including social distancing, the wearing of face masks and frequent hand-washing.

“There’s an awful lot of precautions that we’re taking to keep people safe in the church,” Bruss says. “And, praise the Lord, we haven’t had a single case of coronavirus that we know of in the congregation.”

He added that he hasn’t heard of any other congregations in Topeka or Shawnee County having cases of coronavirus.

“I have not heard of a single church in Shawnee County that has had a case of coronavirus,” Bruss said. “Now, that’s not to say that members of congregations maybe haven’t gotten coronavirus, but they’re not bringing it into the church and spreading it through the churches.”

Bruss said his church conducted services earlier during the coronavirus pandemic with as few as 10 worshipers in the sanctuary. The church now is allowing a maximum of 45 worshipers at each of its three Sunday morning services -- still down from the 150 it averaged before the coronavirus at its two worship services.

Still, things are far from being back to usual, and Bruss says there is no telling when his church will be able to return to its regular kind of worship services.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman Kristi Zears says churches and faith-related groups and gatherings in Kansas have had clusters, which is defined as two or more cases from one source.

Those clusters are included in the KDHE's "Gathering" section for COVID-19 cases in the state. The "Gathering" categories include correctional facilities; day-care facilities or schools; health-care facilities; long-term care facilities; meat-packing plants; and sports events.

Zears told 13 NEWS that "as the pandemic progresses, we continually evaluate data shared, and will review what makes sense to share."

She added that the "Gathering" section incorporates religious activities, including church, retreats and related conferences; funerals; family events; public events and variety of other activities where larger numbers of people have gathered.

“The cluster categories are based on how people are assembling and where COVID-19 is occurring,” Zears said, “not on the individual entity’s operations or protocols.”

As of Thursday, KDHE listed 47 COVID-19 outbreaks in its gatherings category. The gatherings have resulted in 587 cases, 68 hospitalizations and 15 deaths.

On Thursday, Zears said, 24 of the 47 cluster cases in KDHE's "Gathering" category are considered active. However, there was no indication of how many of those gatherings were related to churches or other faith-based groups.

“The biggest concerns for any type of public gathering,” Zears said, “is making sure people are maintaining 6-foot distance, wearing face masks and staying home when ill.”

Locally, the Shawnee County Health Department has been keeping tabs on COVID-19 concerns among congregations by meeting each week with local clergy and other religious leaders.

Craig Barnes, division manager for the Community Health Outreach and Planning program for the Shawnee County Health Department, said the meetings provide an opportunity for local religious leaders "to discuss any issues that arise in congregations" related to the coronavirus.

While many congregations in the Topeka area, such as St. John’s Lutheran Church, have resumed in-person gatherings, a number continue to offer services only online.

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