Before I begin I want to start with some givens, at least to me, and for which I would not want readers to think I am somehow not conscious of. First, the US population is amongst the most fortunate in the world right now in the number of vaccines available, and the speed at which, if it goes as planned, we will be vaccinated. I know this. Second, there are so many people and countries that have no prospect anytime soon to get a vaccine, and that is something we have to pay very close attention to as well, advocate for, and get active about. I know that too. These are my givens before I address where I believe we are now in this COVID pandemic.
I write as we seem to think, feel, and hope that this long pandemic nightmare, in regard to the COVID virus, will soon come to an end. But, I also write with some concerns. Some of you have expressed the same, or asked questions insinuating the same, which has compelled me to write this letter to you. I have to be honest, for the first time during this pandemic, I feel a bit betrayed, or at least at odds with the Governor’s decisions in the past few days. I want to say clearly he, and many other politicians, have the economy as their ultimate concern, or at least a major one, and I get that. Their balance of concern is different than ours, certainly than mine. I am far more concerned about your safety, both clergy and lay.
I know many of our congregations have decided to reopen at limited capacity and I am as glad to see that as you are, and concerned a bit too. I am going to say flatly, I believe the reopening plan the Governor has just rolled out which increases dining and large indoor gatherings is premature, and a bit of a slight to all the good work and sacrifice we have made to heed his guidelines and orders over this past year. I truly do hope I am all wrong.
I say this due to several considerations. All research seems to indicate that the vast majority of infections occur in indoor, enclosed spaces. We have now detected all variants in our state. They, appear to be more highly infectious, and at least one, more deadly. I know not everyone agrees but I found it shocking that our politicians were insisting that teachers go back to the classroom and yet did not have getting them vaccinated as a priority until just recently. Perhaps it is easier once you and your family are vaccinated, to throw caution to the wind for others but I do not want us to do that.
I have this fear because we, this country, have done this now almost three times, waves of infections that is, and I am sincerely hoping I am wrong that we are taking actions now to take us to the fourth wave, but I am concerned about that and not afraid to admit it. We seem to get right there, and then cannot resist opening up. So, I feel the need to express a few things regarding the next few months.
At this moment the reality is that we have only fully vaccinated just at 10% of our state. You do not have to be a mathematician to note this means 90% of us are still not vaccinated. Which also translates to not much being different today than it was three weeks ago. While there are studies that show that fully vaccinated people do not spread the virus, there are just as many beginning to come out of real life experience that show that it is possible. Several people in a study in Hawaii, a month out of full vaccination, have tested positive for the virus. The good news is these folks did not develop serious symptoms, or in other words, vaccines work, GET ONE whenever you are finally allowed. What remains unknown is whether such person can still spread it to others. I am leaning toward the belief that they can. Whatever is true, this inconclusive reality plays into my thoughts below.
First, I am going to urge us all not to fall into the trap and, I would even call it the curse, of the North American, or maybe it is even more specifically, the person from the United States. While antidotal, I will share anyway an encounter I had with an 80 year old woman in Lincoln Park a few weeks ago, who, without a mask, came right up to me and began asking questions about 6 inches from my face. I politely asked her to back up and then I would talk to her. She looked at me and said, “Oh, I’m good, I am vaccinated”. Which is my point.
So much of what has helped the US become the 9th worst per capita death rate in the world, out of 201 countries, is, what I like to call, the “pull up the gangplank, I’m on board” syndrome. Or “I got mine, you get yours if you can, I’m good!” We will live, in the next few months, in a real liminal space, an “in-between space” with those vaccinated, and those not. Please be careful with the syndrome I lay out above. It is inconsiderate, and it does not match the faith we follow. Vaccinated or not, we are compelled by that faith to care for everyone, and to do all that is necessary to protect others no matter how “good” we are. This is why I do not intend to change any of our requirements right now, even if the Governor continues to do so. We will still wear masks, social distance, and will not exceed the Governors guidelines for whatever phase your county is in. I reserve the right to be more conservative than the Governor on this if he exceeds what I believe to be safe.
I have written the Governor about my concerns but I have never gotten a response before and I do not expect one now. He has much more important things to do. Up till now I have put my energy toward more vaccine equity for underserved populations. Recently I did add to the pleas of other denominational leaders, and a letter of my own, asking for clergy to be moved up earlier in the plan, especially as we head toward Holy Week. Pleas to consider clergy essential, or to allow them to be vaccinated in an even one step earlier phase, have fallen on deaf ears. My main concerns here are the safety of clergy and people and access to spiritual care and services, many of which have been denied our people for nearly a year. I also have the concern of unvaccinated clergy and lay leaders in indoor venues as we begin to open and also increase the numbers present in those spaces during this liminal time.
While our Governor is not willing to declare our clergy essential, I want you all to hear that I very much believe you to be. In keeping with us not developing a “second class citizen” status for those vaccinated and those not, I want to make it clear that no cleric, or employed lay person, and certainly not any parishioner should be forced, or feel forced, to work amongst others face to face unvaccinated if they are not willing themselves to take the risk. If you run into dilemmas on this, call our office and we will try everything we can to fulfill the need or request of those needing you. I am personally vowing not to receive the vaccine until at least 50% of our active clergy have had theirs, to keep me on my toes, and make me less likely to fall into the “pull up the gangplank, I’m on board syndrome”.
Hang in there, take care of yourself, and all those you come in contact with. I believe in you, and I believe we will get through this together, and I have had as my number one goal throughout this pandemic, bringing as many with us as we can. I have been continually inspired at how resilient and faithful you all have been through this time. I cannot thank you enough.
Once we do get to the other side here, we truly do need to turn our attention, our resources, and our care to getting the rest of the world the same. If we have learned anything in this last year it should be that the virus respects no borders, no nationalities, no race, no belief system. We are not there yet, but we will get there, and I pray we will do that with everyone “on board.”
The Rt. Rev. Gregory H. Rickel is the VIII Bishop of Olympia, the Episcopal Church in Western Washington State. He has been the bishop here since September, 2007.