COVID-19: CEOs of Hospital Systems Ask Churches in Greater Houston Not to Reopen Until June

Updated: Apr 27


Dr. David Callender, CEO of Memorial Hermann discusses COVID-19 cluster outbreaks in churches, face masks; the Statement of Greater Houston Churches to not reopen until June and the request for all churches to do the same by all CEOs of Texas Medical Center.

"We're all familiar with the cluster outbreaks in nursing homes. And while those have been very much in the news and more frequent, there also have been cluster outbreaks associated with churches. . .understanding that risk and the risks of a cluster outbreak in general, we'd like to avoid the churches reconvening their members in large groups. So we can avoid that potential negative impact in a community if a lot of infection is transmitted."

Mentioned Resources:

Memorial Hermann

The Texas Medical Center

Statement of Churches

Houston Responds Masks for All

Houston Responds COVID-19 Resources


Transcript:

Tommy Rosson:

Thank you for joining us today. This is Tommy Rosson with Houston Responds and I'm very blessed to be joined by Dr. David Callender, the CEO of Memorial Hermann Healthcare System. Thank you for joining us.


Dr. David Callender:

Thank you for having me, Tommy. It's great to be with you.


Tommy Rosson:

Thank you for the leadership that you've provided for churches. The Texas Medical Center and the CEOs have been such an asset to the faith community and your willingness to talk to us directly and give projections. As you think about churches and their role in the community, what kind of risk are associated with churches, especially as we begin to reconsider what reopening looks like?


Dr. David Callender:

Well, you know, any large gathering of people increases the risk for transmission of COVID-19 and large gatherings of people close together, particularly those where people are more likely to touch each other, to hug, to want to be close to someone in the group just increases the risk. And so churches we believe are that special circumstance and I happen to be a Christian myself, profess the Christian faith. And I know when my family and I are in church, we want to be close to our fellow members. We want to talk with them. That human touch in terms of the experience is very important. And so, you know, unfortunately, when we're in that situation, we just sort of want to behave like we always do at this time. That's risky. And so, to those of us in the healthcare profession, we're concerned about large gatherings of people and particularly those in which people are likely to want to be close. They're going to want to be close together and to shake hands to hug those sorts of things.


Tommy Rosson:

During this pandemic, have we seen that churches have been an epicenter of outbreaks, and have they been, are the outbreaks when they happen in a church, are those worse than different areas?


Dr. David Callender:

Yeah, we've seen cluster outbreaks around the world, and in those communities that have experienced cluster outbreaks, it's had a pretty negative impact on the community. We're all familiar with the cluster outbreaks in nursing homes. And while those have been very much in the news and more frequent, there also have been cluster outbreaks associated with churches. A couple in this country, in fact, had been in the news. And so, understanding that risk and the risks of a cluster outbreak in general, we'd like to avoid the churches reconvening their members in large groups. So we can avoid that potential negative impact in a community if a lot of infection is transmitted.


Tommy Rosson:

There is a statement of churches in greater Houston that y'all have supported and even requested that no gatherings above 50 people for the next, don't consider it until June. The churches that have signed this statement have said that they're not even gonna consider having worship services until at least June. And like I said a second ago, the Texas Medical Center has supported this and it is actually requesting it of the greater faith community in greater Houston. Why is it so important that we have a common approach to this?


Dr. David Callender:

Well, again, we want to avoid that potential for a cluster outbreak. You know, in general, when you get groups of larger than 50 people together, even if they're very aware of the social distancing needs, they want to comply and do everything they can, it's just harder to maintain that approach. Particularly as we enter and exit buildings. Typically hallways are narrower, people are closer. And so when we move beyond 50 people, it increases the risk for transmission of the illness. So it's our advice and really requests, particularly to churches, that they not gather members in groups of larger than 50. So we can reduce that risk.


Tommy Rosson:

And when we talk about groups of 50 and we'll have to deal with this issue, as it's groups of 50, 100, 250, or however these stages of a step backward, when we think about some of these larger worship spaces, being able to spread people out, we know that's a realistic possibility. But that's very low. It's very likely that that's actually not where the disease will be spread, that we have so many more people moving through small hallways and in restrooms, how are people gonna flow through? How are you going to walk in and out of the service six feet away? So with all those concerns, how they handle cleanliness, how they handle turnover, how they handle spacing is all gonna be really important. As leading a healthcare system, what does that look like to you in regards to, it's always an option for you to have an infectious disease in your hospital. So how do you approach the cleanliness and handling situations where you can expect people to have an infectious disease?


Dr. David Callender:

Yeah, we're pretty used to dealing with transmissible infectious disease. In fact disease, it's highly transmissible like COVID. And so our approach has always been to limit the risk for infection, to provide the appropriate protection for patients and our workers and to make sure that we are constantly cleaning and sanitizing all the surfaces that can harbor the bacteria or the virus or whatever the agent is that causes the infection. And that's something to think about as we go forward. It's not just about maintaining social distancing, it's also about achieving that level of cleanliness and sanitation on commonly touched surfaces that will be important to reducing the risk.


Tommy Rosson:

When we look at this idea of when are we going to reopen, when can we get back together? I know many churches of thinking about what we can do this, we can make sure everybody wears masks. We can take all these steps, but realistically, we need to be looking at this six months, nine months down the road because this virus is going to stay in our community and we're going to be at risk of an outbreak, ongoing. Can you talk a little bit about that?


Dr. David Callender:

Yeah. We, those of us in healthcare believe that we're going to have to learn how to live with this virus and live with it safely and we're still sorting through how we best do that. And that's one of the reasons for this request that we hold off until the 1st of June in terms of gathering in groups larger than 50 so that all of us can think through, well what does that really or...what is this living safely with the virus look like in our church or in our building, or in our office, it requires planning typically requires some modification of facilities or approach to keeping them clean. And then a lot of thought in terms of how people get in and out so we can maintain the appropriate level of social distancing. We think life is going to be like that for a while because it likely will be two years or perhaps more until we have an effective vaccine if we ever have an effective vaccine. So just thinking through how we'll live safely with the virus, how will reduce the risk for transmission among people who are coming into a building or a space like a hospital or a church is a critical thing for us to think about and plan right now.


Tommy Rosson:

You mentioned that you know, there's the reality of two years plus for a vaccine. What are the indicators that actually reduce the staging? Are the things that need to happen for really as a greater community, for these larger events to begin to take place? Is it just testing? Is it testing and reducing the number of cases? Or what does the testing need to look like and what does the case reduction need to look like?


Dr. David Callender:

Well, we'd really like to reduce the number of cases and the risk for transmission of the existing cases. And we think as healthcare professionals, the best way to do that is to markedly increase her testing capacity and then work with our public health officials to create the tracing so that we can identify people who are infected and then isolate them and isolate the people who have been in close contact with them too. So that again reduces the transmission rate over the course of time. So we're thinking about how we do that. We certainly need a little more time right now to increase our testing capacity, to build the public health infrastructure to do the tracing and to help people understand how to isolate and reduce the risk of transmitting the disease to their family and their friends and their fellow employees. And so again, a little more time as necessary to think through that we think it is doable, but we're not quite to the point where we can do that well.


Tommy Rosson:

One of the hot issues has been masks here in greater Houston. Talk to us about why masks are so important.


Dr. David Callender:

Well, mask actually help reduce transmission because they protect us from transmitting the disease to someone else. A lot of people think we're wearing a mask keeps me from getting it, well that's not really true. Washing your hands, doing all the other things reduces your risk of contracting the disease. But we also know that perhaps 25%, maybe a higher percentage of patients are not having symptoms but are transmitting the virus. And so to reduce the risk for that sort of transmission, we think it's appropriate for everybody to wear a mask. So, you know, you and I have talked earlier, we think as Christians we want to do good things for the people around us. And so this is a form perhaps of loving your neighbor. Where a mask, consider that you could potentially be infected and infect others. And so reduce the risk for that by wearing a mask.


Tommy Rosson:

Absolutely. One of the things we were saying is, the most neighborly thing you can do is to wear a mask and give one to somebody else. So, it's so critical, it's also critical for the reopening of our economy to ensure that there is a reduction in that just in everyday environments. The mask is a great example of where politics come into this or also where just great distances come into, you know, Texas we're proud of, you know, we are a very large state with a very diverse population in very different areas. And so you put people like governor Abbott on one hand and local officials, on the other hand, they have to make decisions based off of a state and off of large geography and off of also small geography. Talk to us a little bit about why that's so difficult and why those messages might be mixed.


Dr. David Callender:

Yeah. You know, the governor's having to deal with a very large area, large geography, and different rates of infection across the state. We have 254 counties in Texas and 56 of them have no infection. On the other hand, we have Houston and Dallas, which have very high rates of infection, particularly right now, and what we believe is our peak. And so as we look across Texas, we need to look to local leaders to examine what's happening around them and design an approach to restart allowing people to circulate more broadly. That's based on what's happening locally as opposed to across the state. And so our advice here in Houston is, you know, let's watch what's happening with our infection rate, the number of cases, understand where there are higher rates of transmission, then other areas of our greater Houston region, and then do our best to modify our approach to letting people circulate again and restarting our economy based on what's happening here. So the governor sees it one way or local officials are really focused on what's happening here. We think that's appropriate.


Tommy Rosson:

One of the great things about having the Texas Medical Center in Houston and many times we say Houston and what we mean is greater Houston, the Memorial Hermann Hospital System. How many counties are you in?


Dr. David Callender:

I think our primary service area is about nine counties. And then if you look beyond that in the secondary service area, it's about 13 or 14. And so we're significantly spread across the region thinking I considered greater Houston in total. It's about 7.2-7.3 million people. So a lot of us here in this area. And, we need to think about everybody in greater Houston as we plan our local response.


Tommy Rosson:

And one of the things that the Texas Medical Center is doing is they provide daily updates of cases, of beds, of ventilators, all of the primary information. And you also show if we were or were not at different stages of social distancing, the impact of that. And I think it's really interesting. It's not just Houston, those are numbers for all of your system, in all of your areas. So it really is a great representation of not just Houston, but greater Houston. So I want to be clear, your recommendation for churches to not consider meeting before June, to limit groups of, definitely limit any groups larger than 50. That's not just Harris County, that's the region, right? Is that correct?


Dr. David Callender:

That's correct. Because what we're seeing in our hospitals really reflects what's happening across the region. So we're monitoring that on a daily basis and then trying to provide useful advice to our elected officials based on what we see happen happening, what we're seeing happening around greater Houston.


Tommy Rosson:

Well, thank you so much for joining us. I will include in the notes of this video links to the document that y'all have supported and are requesting of local churches. And we've got, there are over a hundred churches so far and that's rapidly growing of those who want to follow your advice to us as we move forward. One of the things I want to communicate and I want you just to briefly talk about, your willingness to work with the church and help us develop best practices and guidelines. Talk to us a little bit about that.


Dr. David Callender:

Yeah, absolutely. I think all of the leaders in the Texas medical center institutions are available and willing to work with leaders from all of the faiths, all of the churches and temples and synagogues, with business leaders from across greater Houston to think about general precautions as well as things which may be specific to a building or particular gathering. So we're supposed to share our expertise. We're happy to do that. So please let us know if we can help.

Tommy Rosson:

Well, like I've of already said, we're very blessed that you have shared your expertise with us today and especially as we start to consider a whole brand new set of circumstances for the local church. So thank you very much for joining us.


Dr. David Callender:

And thank you for having me.


Tommy Rosson:

Dr. Callender, thank you so much for joining us today and the generosity that you've shown not just now, but through all of this that we're going through together. Church leaders, if you would like to read the joint statement between denominational leaders as well as almost a hundred churches, that will be listed in our notes and will be associated with all of the Facebook posts and social media so that you can go there. I encourage you to go there, read that. You could sign it, there'll be an opportunity to do that. And you'll also fully understand that this is not just the churches, but as you heard today, a recommendation from the leaders of the Texas Medical Center. So I encourage you to do that, it will also be listed at www.houstonresponse.org/COVID-19, as well as other resources for your church as you go through this season. Thank you for joining us.


Additional COVID-19 resources for congregations available here.

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