When the pandemic was first declared in March 2020, maybe you didn’t know anybody with COVID-19. Over the summer, as the virus prowled and claimed more victims, maybe the illness passed over your family and friends.
This week, the United States topped 250,000 deaths from coronavirus, with soaring case rates in the East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia communities of Holston Conference. More than 1 million cases were reported in the United States over the last seven days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
COVID-19 existed in Holston Conference all along, but now we know more people who have suffered with or died from the virus. Just last week, Holston Conference shut down its Alcoa headquarters for two weeks when a staff member tested positive. The building is expected to reopen November 30.
As the holidays draw near and health officials warn of the dangers of spreading the virus during family gatherings, The Call asked five Holstonians to share their own COVID-19 experiences along with lessons to be learned.
Lesson 1: Even when you’re careful, you can get sick.
After months of staying home with his family, the Rev. Ronnie Collins was surprised when he contracted the virus earlier this month. After participating in what seemed like a safe outdoor activity, Carolyn Haerr was surprised when she tested positive for the virus in July.
The people who spoke to The Call said that wearing face masks and social distancing are routine practices for them, yet the virus sneaked its way into their lives. Collins, age 55, believes he and his family may have been infected by another family member who went bowling.
“In my mind, we were doing the right things and we weren’t going to get it,” said the senior pastor at Out of the Box United Methodist Church in Hillsville, Virginia.
For Haerr, age 72, it was a boat ride and cookout for a new family in the area that led to sickness for both her and her husband. “We were acutely ill for a couple of weeks. It took another couple of weeks for us to get back to a semblance of our norms,” said Haerr, a member at Spring City United Methodist Church in Spring City, Tennessee.
"I wouldn’t wish this virus on anybody,” said Vaughn, a member at Telford United Methodist Church in Telford, Tennessee.
Lesson 2: Symptoms vary. The fatigue is rough.The CDC says the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, and tiredness. Other less common symptoms are loss of taste or smell, aches and pains, headache, sore throat, nasal congestion, red eyes, diarrhea, or a skin rash.
Our five Holstonians experienced a range of these symptoms in varying severity, and not all with fever. For Haerr, a loss of appetite and fatigue were the most vexing. She couldn’t find anything to eat that tasted good. Whenever she tried to eat, “I was so tired I laid my head on the table between bites.”
Vaughn said her initial symptom was a backache so severe, her husband almost took her to the ER for it. She hasn’t experienced a fever. “I haven’t coughed a lot but I’m short of breath. Fatigue is the worst part. I’ve had mono[nucleosis] before, and this fatigue is worse than mono.”
The Rev. Bill Rimmer, age 58, said he went from being fine on a Thursday in October to “not being able to get out of bed four or five hours later.” He thought he had a sinus headache when he lay down to rest about 5 p.m. By 9 p.m. he was full-blown sick with fatigue. Fever and cough arrived shortly after.
Rimmer, who has since recovered, still doesn’t know where he contracted the virus. His wife and family members tested negative and stayed healthy. Rimmer is pastor at Norwood United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Lesson 3: Everybody needs a church family.
“People at our church were good about checking on us,” said Haerr. “That’s about as important a thing as we Christians can do for each other. So many older people going through this don’t have someone to check on them.”
In addition to no-contact meal drop-offs, Haerr and the others said they appreciated offers to pick up groceries and text messages and emails of concern and prayer.
“I really didn’t need anything, but they offered to take care of me and were very willing to help,” said the Rev. Larry Dial, pastor at Beaver Ridge United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Dial, age 66, contracted the virus in August.
Rimmer said he was grateful for the delivery of a hot lunch from his church’s takeout meal ministry and “Orange Julius tea” from his brother. Vaughn was not only delighted by the food, get-well cards, telephone calls and text messages, but also the delivery (from a clergy-spouse friend) of a “goody bag” with lotion, cough drops, crossword puzzles and other thoughtful gifts.
Vaughn said she was distressed to learn some of her friends and fellow parishioners had the virus but kept it hidden. “Why should we be quiet when we’re sick? If I had known, I would have dropped off food.” (See Lesson 5.)
Lesson 4: Guidelines are a godsend.
Some members complained when church buildings were closed to prevent virus spread or resented complex safety measures required by Holston Conference for in-person worship.
Collins was one of three pastors who said he is grateful for guidelines and leadership that help keep people safe.
“I’m thankful I didn’t have to make that call to close the churches. I didn’t feel like I was qualified,” said Collins. Many of the worshippers at Savannah and Mt. Vale United Methodist Churches, which he also pastors, were also thankful that care was taken to protect them.
“We have a higher responsibility to keep our neighbors safe than ourselves,” Collins said.
Rimmer said he carefully followed Holston’s protocol for safe gatherings. So when he began exhibiting virus symptoms, the pastor and his district superintendent were confident that congregants had not been exposed.
“I’m glad we were taking that seriously, and we weren’t just meeting off the cuff without any precautions,” Rimmer said.
Like others who were interviewed, Dial said he “can’t wait for the vaccine." In the meantime, he believes the safety measures that others feel hindered by have helped the church find new ways to be in ministry.
“I think we’ve done well with it,” Dial said. “I feel safer in worship on Sundays than I do when I go to the grocery store.”
Lesson 5: The stigma needs to stop.
People who have experienced the virus said they also experienced a shame that seems wrong and doesn’t help anybody.
“Some people feel there’s a stigma attached to it. I don’t get that,” said Dial, who was upfront with his congregation as soon as he tested positive.
Collins was also transparent about his illness and the steps he took to keep others safe. Even though he has recovered and completed his quarantine, Collins said he sometimes feels he has to go to lengths to explain to people “they don’t have to be afraid of me.”
When Vaughn got sick, she had to ask herself why she suddenly felt shame and guilt. The judgmental comments she reads on social media are frustrating, she says. “It’s not my fault that I got sick.”
Some people say if you’re afraid to go to church, you don’t have faith, says Vaughn. Some assume that if you fall ill, you were reckless and deserve it. Others bash each other over wearing or not wearing face masks. Some are already beginning to argue about the safety of upcoming vaccines.
“People have made this virus political, cultural, and religious,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody’s business. And nobody is showing anyone grace.”
Meanwhile, people are dying.
The judgments and stigma have “got to stop,” says Vaughn. She calls on Christians to set an example. “This virus is scary. But the only person who gets to judge what’s in someone else’s heart is God.”
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.