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Is church attendance linked to higher rates of coronavirus?

One of the most controversial parts of the COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown strategy in the United States was the closure of churches across the country. The latest evidence indicates that there was indeed a correlation between attending church and the spread of COVID-19.

Public health experts strongly urged churches to cease congregational meetings during the worst parts of the pandemic, noting that religious services were an ideal vector to spread the virus. They pointed to incidents such as that in March 2020 when a choir practice in a church resulted in 87% of attendees’ being infected with COVID-19, and two members losing their lives.

But the closures were met by a massive backlash among conservative Christians who believed that executive orders closing religious institutions were a clear violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion protection. Some places of worship simply ignored state closure orders. As the pandemic wore on and people tired of socially isolating, many churches, mosques and synagogues began to reopen.

Although this was bad news from a public health perspective, it meant social scientists were able to investigate whether churchgoing during the pandemic did indeed lead to a higher level of infection. And in March 2021, the Cooperative Election Study released the results of a survey it fielded in October 2020. The annual survey of the American public saw a total of 61,000 respondents quizzed on a number of topics.

Alongside a question about their level of church attendance, respondents were asked if they had been diagnosed with COVID-19 during the past year. Because of the highly partisan nature of the response to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, the sample was divided into Republicans, Democrats and independents.

The trend in the data was unmistakable – the more frequently someone went to church, the more likely they were to report that they had been diagnosed with COVID-19 during the first seven months of the pandemic.

Just 3% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats who never attended church were more likely to respond that they had been infected. Among those who attended church multiple times per week, nearly 11% of Democrats had tested positive for the coronavirus, while 8% of Republicans reported the same.

It’s worth pointing out that there’s not a large partisan gap in those reporting a positive COVID-19 test – in most cases the share of Democrats and Republicans who had been infected did not deviate by more than one percentage point. There’s ample evidence that Democrats took public health directives more seriously; however, that may have been offset by the fact that Democratic areas tend to have high population density. Urban areas were especially hard-hit in the early days of the pandemic.

The survey results do come with some caveats. It’s important to note that this is a survey of self-reported infections, without any independent verification. A concept in public opinion research called “social desirability bias” highlights the tendency of respondents to lie when they are asked a question that is sensitive in nature. As such, the number of people infected may be an underestimate. Also, the data were compiled before the largest spike in COVID-19 infections in early January 2021, and as a result the data capture only those who got infected earlier in the pandemic.

And while the focus here is on church attendance, it’s logical to conclude that people who felt comfortable going back to weekend worship were also more willing to engage in other social activities. It is therefore difficult to isolate whether church attendance was what spread the infection, or if a general disposition toward social gatherings drove up the likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19.

Nonetheless, it does seem fair to conclude that those who attended church more frequently in 2020 were also more likely to be infected with COVID-19. There is now plenty of research to suggest that social distancing, avoiding crowds and meeting people only outdoors are mitigation factors when it comes to the spread of the virus – all things that are harder to do in the confines of a church.

This article by Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University is published courtesy of The Conversation via The Associated Press. The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. 

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