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Austin residents asked to attend virtual worship services this holiday season

With more active COVID-19 cases in our community than any other point in the pandemic, Austin Public Health is asking residents to remain vigilant.

AUSTIN, Texas — In an update on Wednesday, Austin Public Health urged Austinites to worship virtually this year as the holidays fuel a surge in cases. Travis County on Tuesday reported the highest single-day case count since mid-July.

With more active infections in our community than any other point in the pandemic, Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said “we’ve got to do more.”

“We've seen the results of the Thanksgiving effect on COVID-19,” he said. “Now we're in the phase of seeing infection spread by those who were infected during Thanksgiving, and the potential for Christmas to accelerate the growth in a number of cases and hospitalizations is serious.”

Some may be wondering why religious gatherings are riskier than going to the grocery store or running another errand. Religious celebrations are particularly risky because individuals are in extended close contact with one another and participating in activities such as singing, holding hands and sharing wine vessels.

I know it's difficult,” said Dr. Escott. “I’ve been going to church virtually since the beginning of the pandemic and it's not the same. It's not the same as celebrating with your faith community. But we have to realize that our situation right now is not the same as it was a year ago and that gatherings of individuals, particularly in close proximity for longer than 15 minutes, which is every church service.”

Dr. Escott warned if the current trend continues, local hospitals will be overwhelmed.

“It doesn't stop by magic,” he said. “We can't will it away. We have to individually take responsibility and protect ourselves so that we can protect our community. The vaccine is here. We have the ability to prevent disease. We have the ability to prevent deaths through vaccination. Now is the time where we need to buckle down and not only push the positivity and the cases down, we need to push them down to zero.”

RELATED: Austin mayor, Travis County judge ask faith leaders to voluntarily stop in-person services

On Tuesday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown sent an open letter to faith leaders asking them to voluntarily stop in-person services.

"During this time of year, many of us are looking to reconnect with our faith, family and friends to restore our spirits. We recognize your unique leadership role and your responsibility to tend to the needs of your congregation," the letter said. "As our community heads into this important time, we are writing again to ask for your voluntary assistance to keep our community safe, and to help prevent Austin/Travis County from moving into Stage 5 during the holidays."

Brown and Adler asked faith leaders to consider virtual worship if their congregation has digital capabilities. If their congregation doesn't have that as an option, the pair asks leaders consider other changes to holiday services, including enforcing mask use and social distancing and avoiding sustained contacts among those in large groups, especially to protect vulnerable community members such as the elderly.

"We are so close to getting the vaccine to these neighbors that we feel it is especially necessary to urge their protection now to the greatest extent possible," the letter said.

KVUE spoke to Pastor Jim Rigby of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Tuesday night. He said for the majority of the pandemic, his congregation has kept its services virtual. The only in-person operations are the food pantry and homeless ministry.

He believes keeping service online during the holidays is the right thing to do.

"So, to honor the doctors and the first-line workers and immunologists that are saying, 'Just stay distant a little while longer and we're going to control of this thing,' I think that's what faith means right now," Rigby said. "For the holidays, we will have online services and I think, you know, whatever faith you have, that there will be opportunities to go online and get as close as you can possibly get. You know, it's, it's very frustrating. But if we can just be patient a little while longer, we'll be able to come back together again and be able to actually be in the same room."

The Diocese of Austin also said in a statement its parishes will continue to follow health guidelines during masses.

Throughout the pandemic, the parishes in the Diocese of Austin have followed safe protocols for the celebration of Mass, based on CDC guidelines and recommendations from health experts," the statement said in part. "These protocols, which continue to be followed, encourage all congregants at Mass to wear masks, observe safe distances between households, wash or sanitize their hands when entering the church, and receive Holy Communion by the hand. Additionally, parishes disinfect the pews and other touched surfaces between Masses."

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