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Baltimore City Health Department, Johns Hopkins to offer COVID guidance for houses of worship

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott, Johns Hopkins officials and an East Baltimore bishop announced Monday a partnership to advise houses of worship on safely reopening as coronavirus-related guidance evolves amid the state’s growing vaccination campaign.

The partnership will offer churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other houses of worship both virtual and in-person guidance on best practices for reopening and the latest information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Scott said in a news conference Monday afternoon.

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“The partnership will involve two components: a virtual educational session and one-on-one guidance to help Baltimore faith institutions comply with the city’s public health mandates, learn about best practices and receive resources,” Scott said.

Houses of worship have been allowed to operate at 50% of their normal capacity along with retail stores, gyms and casinos since March 26, when the Democratic mayor also loosened restrictions on bars and restaurants, allowing indoor dining at 50% and outdoor dining at 75%.

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Through a pilot program, Baltimore City and Johns Hopkins health professionals will be paired with houses of worship to provide a building walk-through and individualized guidance for those congregations that request it, the mayor said.

The Democratic mayor made the announcement with city Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Johns Hopkins Medicine vice president and chief diversity officer Dr. Sherita Hill Golden, Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, Johns Hopkins assistant professor in the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine; and Bishop James Nelson, of Destiny Christian Church.

Golden called medical-religious partnerships “imperative to improving the health of our communities” and said faith institutions “are trusted backbones and pillars in our society.”

“For so many, we have been longing for the moment we can gather together again. This is particularly hard for churchgoers who find healing in face-to-face fellowship,” Golden said.

Johns Hopkins has directly vaccinated more than 1,000 people through its partnerships with a handful of city faith-based institutions, Golden said.

“We are delighted to bring our medical and public health expertise to our faith partners to share information about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines as it evolves, as well as to provide guidance on approaches to safely reopening places of worship across the city and adapting our worship practices in the setting of the pandemic,” she said.

Galiatsatos, the Johns Hopkins Health System’s co-chair for health equity and co-director of Medicine for the Greater Good, said he had participated in “Congregational Conversations around COVID” zoom calls, which he called “a blessing to see happen during real-time.” The practical conversations have ranged from how to safely perform an adult baptism to how to safely perform a Jewish bris ceremony, Galiatsatos said. Religious communities have been part of Baltimore “for as long as Baltimore’s been around,” he said.

“They have been there to help Baltimore be Baltimore at its best,” Galiatsatos said. “If we are to move past this pandemic, and put it behind us, these medical-religious partnerships will be the answer. I’m confident of that, and I’ve seen that. More specifically, if medicine is to reaffirm itself as a public trust, it must work with entities that have the public’s trust.”

Destiny Christian Church, which has locations on Eastern Avenue near Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and on Rolling Road near Security Square, has been hosting its services virtually to comply with the best health guidance, said Nelson.

Nelson called on all other houses of worship to take the city and Hopkins up on its virtual and in-person guidance, saying it will “help lift the burden for organizations and places of worship that might not have the resources that others will have.”

“We are standing in the front lines,” Nelson said. “We’re not just places where we come to worship. We’ve been the places to help meet need, give food, give supplies, and now, to be sites for vaccination.”

The city is in its fourth wave of COVID-19, with daily case counts comparable to the highs of November and December, Dzirasa said. Increased resident mobility, which is approaching pre-pandemic levels, and coronavirus variants circulating in the region are likely contributing to the rising rate of new cases, she said.

The city is tallying about 247 new cases per day, with a total of 50,402 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. An average of three people are dying of COVID-19 per day, and the city’s total pandemic death toll has reached 910, the health commissioner said.

Almost a quarter of city residents are considered fully vaccinated, having received both doses of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, she said.

“Ensuring that our faith institutions have the most up-to-date COVID-19 guidance and reopening best practices will continue to save lives,” Dzirasa said.

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