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Your Music Director is Actually a Molecular Biologist

Your music director is actually a molecular biologist. I came to New Haven and Yale not for music, but to pursue a doctorate in genetics. Thus my perspective on coronaviruses is skewed towards the molecular: I have studied viruses on the RNA and protein level. We are constantly reevaluating many of our plans in light of new data from epidemiologists and physicians and scientists, and clergy are working hard to find new ways to effectively minister in these times, so that social distancing doesn’t become spiritual distancing.

by Bill Speed on August 26, 2020

Read the full Steeple Newsletter for August 26th by clicking here. 

"Your music director is actually a molecular biologist."
By Bill Speed

Your music director is actually a molecular biologist. I came to New Haven and Yale not for music, but to pursue a doctorate in genetics. Thus my perspective on coronaviruses is skewed towards the molecular: I have studied viruses on the RNA and protein level. For the past 27 years I have been a human population geneticist, which means I use statistics to look at broad patterns of DNA variation, and that analysis answers questions about human disease and human anthropology.

It is amazing how quickly medical researchers have gathered data on this novel virus. As soon as the genetic sequence of the virus was available, I downloaded it and scanned it. I’ve tried to use my experience to counter a lot of misinformation that gets spread quickly. No, the virus isn’t mutating quickly: in fact, this virus has a low mutation rate, which makes the likelihood of vaccine success much better.

Some scientists have been absolutely brilliant in figuring out how this virus works in humans. A recent study has started to pick apart why certain individuals have much worse outcomes when infected: a hunch that an ancient part of our immune system called the “complement system” was being targeted by SARS-Cov-2 led researchers to comb through data from 6,398 patients with COVID-19, and showed that age-related macular degeneration (a pathology for complement defects) was a large risk factor for COVID-19. Medical researchers now have new ideas about how to treat patients, and how we might better fight this infection. 

What we also know from this: certain individuals, no matter how healthy they are, carry genetic variants that make them more susceptible to very adverse outcomes from SARS-Cov-2 infection.

The good news from the research community is this: early data from the vaccine development has been promising. There are many different approaches being tried, but it looks like this won’t be a one-and-done vaccine: it probably will require an initial injection, and then you’ll have to go back a month or so later and get a booster shot of the vaccine that will then provide some degree of immunity. It remains to be seen how long immunity will last; we may all be getting our annual influenza shot in addition to our annual SARS-Cov-2 shot. How this country facilitates a mass-immunization, once a vaccine is available, and how this is deployed world-wide will be a monumental undertaking.
 
As Director of Music Ministries, my perspective on this pandemic has been focused on the risks associated with gathering and singing, both choral and congregational. How can we safely return to congregational worship, and how can we safely return to choral singing? Church staff have been constantly reevaluating information and recommendations from: the Southern New England Consociation, the UCC Insurance Board, the UCCGuilford, the CDC, the World Health Organization, the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), and medical professionals at Yale Health.

There have been multiple documented super-infection events that involved choral singing. After a concert on March 8th, of the 130 singers in the Amsterdam Gemengd Koor, 102 became infected with COVID-19, and 1 singer and 3 partners of chorus members died from COVID infection. On March 9th, a Berlin Cathedral Choir rehearsal led to at least 50 infections out of the 80 singers. Germany currently has a national legal ban on any singing in churches. On March 10th, at the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, after a 2.5 hour rehearsal, 52 of 61 singers were infected by one singer who didn't know that they were carrying the virus. The CDC released a report on the Washington choir event: "The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization. Certain persons, known as superemitters, who release more aerosol particles during speech than do their peers, might have contributed to this and previously reported COVID-19 superspreading events."
 
There have also been many documented cases of infections resulting from church reopening. Articles in USAToday and the New York Times  summarize the harrowing cases.  No hymn, no communal prayer can outweigh the life of a congregant. We can infer from a recent Pew Research study that most of you will be coming back to church when we reopen, but the question remains: how soon will church be ‘normal’ again?  

The problematic part of the reopening plans comes down to this: our indoor worship space can never fall below “moderate risk”, per the WHO assessment.  [For example, we don’t have an air handling system, other than open windows; we have a large percent of our membership that falls in the ‘higher risk’ age demographic, etc.] We also know, from our experience doing several funeral services in the Memorial Garden, that it is hard to get people to stop being human: touching, hugging, standing close together. It’s one of the reasons why we come to church, or come to choir: the physical and spiritual reconnection to our faith community. We are also juggling to grasp new data that hints that the 6 foot distance commonly prescribed may be inadequate indoors in spaces with poor ventilation. Outdoors worship brings with it a host of issues as well per safety, accessibility, toilets, etc.
 
After reading this, I’m guessing there’s a bunch of you who are sadder, and there’s a bunch of you who are more hopeful. Click here to read our plan for September and October in-person. To find common ground I’d suggest this place: your church staff and congregational leadership are working very hard to find ways that we can be together safely. We all hope for that to be sooner rather than later. We are constantly reevaluating many of our plans in light of new data from epidemiologists and physicians and scientists, and clergy are working hard to find new ways to effectively minister in these times, so that social distancing doesn’t become spiritual distancing.

With Hope Always, 
Bill

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