Dr. Anthony Fauci predicts church services — with hugging, praising, and music-making — will be able to resume safely in mid-fall, if the US vaccinates people "appropriately, effectively, and efficiently."
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made the projection Monday during the Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Conclave, an online convening of more than 100 Black clergy, leading public health officials, and corporate and scientific leaders who are working to boost COVID-19 testing and other resources in the Black community. It was co-led by the Reverends Al Sharpton and Calvin Butts.
When Fauci took the virtual stage, he answered questions from Black clergy around the country. The inquiry about church services came from the Reverend John Vaughn, who was representing Senator-elect Reverend Raphael Warnock from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
"When can we expect to go back to church, when we'll be able to sing, we'll be able to do wind instruments?" he asked.
Fauci said the timeline largely depends on how quickly we can get "the overwhelming proportion of our population," or at least 70% to 85%, vaccinated.
It's particularly important that people who are most vulnerable, including Black Americans, get the vaccine. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are dying at nearly 3 times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people and being hospitalized at nearly 4 times the rate.
Working to overcome a history of racial discrimination and mistreatment
But getting the vaccine first requires the Black community to trust that it's safe and effective, Fauci and other speakers said.
Black adults have shown more hesitancy about COVID-19 vaccines than White people or Hispanic people. About 35% of Black people said they probably or definitely wouldn't get a COVID-19 shot, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, compared with about a quarter of people who identified as Hispanic or as white.
Hesitancy among Black Americans stems from a long history of racial discrimination and mistreatment by the US healthcare system, immunologist Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, president and chief executive officer of Meharry Medical College, said earlier in the event.
As a Black scientist who's been involved in the vaccine development process, he said the coronavirus vaccine is "nothing like Tuskegee."
He was referring to the Tuskegee experiment, in which US scientists monitored about 400 Black men with syphilis and withheld treatment for the disease. The study lasted for about four decades, according to a CDC timeline, ending in 1972.
Hildreth said that "people of color must take the vaccine because otherwise, we're putting our lives and our communities at risk."
Biden is promising to speed up the US vaccine rollout
Once the vast majority of the population is vaccinated, Fauci continued, "the level of virus in the community will be at such a low level that we will be able to really approach a degree of normality that's similar, maybe not identical, but similar to where we were before all of this."
He said that if the US pursues its vaccination campaign "appropriately, effectively, and efficiently," then "in the mid-fall, we'll be able to get back to that type of worship which we all are longing for right now."
So far, though, the US vaccine rollout has gone much more slowly than top Trump administration officials promised. The rollouts has been hamstrung by a lack of federal assistance and limited funding, as Insider's Hilary Brueck reported.
US President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to speed up the vaccine effort, setting a goal of giving 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. He's called for increased funding and said he'll order the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help give the immunizations.
Church services and group singing activities are super-spreader events
In-person church services are the kind of event that presents a particularly high risk for spreading the coronavirus.
That's because people are close to others indoors for an extended period of time. The coronavirus typically spreads via droplets that can travel 6 feet between people. Singing or even loud talking could allow the virus to travel farther, some research suggests.
In fact, singing and church services have contributed to super-spreader events, in which an infected person is able to pass the disease to far more people than the average of two.
In March, 60 members of a choir in Washington held a rehearsal. Three weeks later, 45 members were diagnosed with COVID-19, three were hospitalized, and two died.
In December, a holiday musical event at a church in North Carolina — where many people didn't wear masks, including shoulder-to-shoulder choir singers — led to 75 people testing positive for the coronavirus.
"If you're outdoors in a place that doesn't have a lot of COVID? That's almost no risk," former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, said earlier in Monday's program. "If you're indoors for a long time with a lot of people who are shouting and singing and not wearing masks, that's the highest risk."