Open Letter to North Georgia United Methodists from Rev. Chris and Dr. Jennifer Barbieri

3/18/2020


Friends in Christ,
I encourage you to read the following letter from Rev. Chris and Dr. Jennifer Barbieri, two of our own serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their strong and compelling message to us offers both insight and practical advice. Please hold them and all our medical and spiritual providers in prayer.​
--Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson


Dear North Georgia United Methodists,

We are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic in North Georgia and bring a unique perspective. Jennifer is a Pulmonologist with Harbin Clinic in Rome and has been treating COVID-19 positive patients at the two hospitals in Floyd County for the past three weeks. Chris is a chaplain at Floyd Medical Center and has been ministering to staff and patients since the outbreak began.

We have been asked publicly and privately for the past few weeks if coronavirus is as serious as people were hearing. YES. IT. IS. We are relieved at the actions to close schools, cancel events, and shift worship to online. While inconvenient and frustrating, these steps were necessary. If anything, they were probably several days late. If you are not already familiar with “flattening the curve,” please Google it. When battling infections disease, this flattening is crucial in keeping the healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

Each community only has so many pulmonologists, ventilators (life support), critical care nurses, and negative pressure rooms. Please remember that the medical teams are treating all the “normal” patients AND dealing with a pandemic. While the COVID-19 outbreak became real for most of you in the last few days, the hospitals have already been sprinting for the past two weeks. Staff are already stressed and have been working tirelessly with the highest level of infectious disease protocols in place to care for all their patients.

How can you and your congregations do your part in your communities? First, please preach and model social distancing. This is a proven technique to slow the spread of infections disease. We need to prevent a massive spike in COVID-19 cases, as has happened in other countries. 

Our family live-streamed a worship service from a United Methodist Church in our Conference on Sunday. We were concerned to see 20-30 choir members, accompanists, and multiple clergy leading the service. There was even a baptism and baptismal family present early in the service. While our spiritual side appreciates the efforts to simulate a normal worship service, our medical best practices side was sending up red flags. We enjoyed the service, but this was too many people gathered together and did not model social distancing. We do not need people “bending the rules” for something special – even church!

Many of you are probably aware of the situation at a non-UMC church in Bartow County. Multiple members of this church are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Northwest Georgia and became infected at church. We do not want to see something like this happen in a United Methodist Church.  We are not overstating things when we say going to church could kill you or someone in your congregation in our current environment. All it takes in one contagious person in a group to put everyone’s life at risk.

Based on the full parking lots in shopping centers and at restaurants we are seeing, people are not taking COVID-19 seriously enough. While those over 60 are most at risk, younger people are not immune. As has been reported in the media, we have patients in our community on life support who are in their 30s. If we do not practice effective social distancing, COVID-19 will result in numerous deaths, as has been seen in other countries. Keep your social contacts to a minimum.  Only shop when it’s necessary. Maximize use of technology and reduce face-to-face communication.

Several churches have reached out to us and our employers in recent days asking how they might support our hardworking medical professionals. As you consider your congregation’s response, please reflect on the following:

  • The best response is always a personal one. If you have hospital employees in your congregations, check on them and ask what they need. Check on anyone who works at the hospital, not just the nurses and doctors. Everyone, from security and housekeepers to facilities management and administration and everyone in between, is impacted and dealing with extra demands. Needs will vary from person to person. One person may need help with childcare. Others may need someone to shop for them, help with aging parents, help with pets, or meals. 
  • This pandemic has created enormous emotional strain and anxiety. In most cases, the emotional needs of hospital employees and their families are far greater than their material needs. While our communities are observing social distancing, the demand of work has led to social and emotional isolation for many healthcare workers. Some hospital staff are isolated from their families and friends. They are worried about their spouses, children, and parents. They miss their families. We have experienced this in our household with Jennifer being in isolation for several days due to our exercising an abundance of caution. It was hard on us and very hard on our young children.
  • Similarly, hospital workers are afraid of inadvertently coming into contact with COVID-19 and catching it, in spite of all the protective procedures and protocols in place. Even worse, they fear inadvertently infecting someone else. This fear only magnifies the emotional burden they are carrying.
  • In most cases, hospitals do NOT need bottled water or food. This is a different type of crisis and not a natural disaster. Please do not create an unintended problem by collecting and delivering supplies the hospital did not request. (There may be other segments of your community where material needs are very real, but please only collect and deliver what is requested to any organization.)
With those thoughts in mind, here are some things congregations can do to support their medical communities:
  • Please pray for hospital employees and their families. Your prayers are appreciated! Consider a 24-hour prayer vigil in which people sign up for specific time slots.
  • Write a note or card of encouragement, either for a specific healthcare employee you know or for any healthcare employee. Please check with your local hospital to ensure they can receive and deliver these before doing this.
  • As a church, write a message of encouragement for your medical community. Post it on social media and have your members share it.
  • Give blood. Social distancing has resulted in a large decrease in blood donations. In NW Georgia, Blood Assurance provides the blood products for all the hospitals in our region. Last week, there were 800 cancelations in Rome, Cartersville, and Dalton. This decline in donations is likely occurring state-wide. If that trend continues, the blood supply could reach critical status quickly. Our local Blood Assurance donor center has extended its hours and is using extra screening protocols for staff and donors to keep everyone safe. Please check with your local donor center and make an appointment (we don’t want long lines!)
  • Individually wrapped snacks might be appreciated. Many hospital staff are working long shifts and cannot break for meals. Please check with your local hospital to ensure they can receive and deliver these before doing this.
  • Childcare is a concern raised by a number of staff in our Floyd County medical community. This is admittedly a difficult problem to solve but be aware this may be one of the greatest current needs in your community.
Again, the most important thing you can do is to encourage your congregations to practice social distancing and to avoid crowds or gatherings (and good handwashing.) Helping slow the spread of COVID-19 is the greatest gift you can offer to the medical community (and your whole community!)

Ironically, if we are successful in containing the spread of COVID-19 it will likely feel like we have overreacted. From the front lines, we assure this is not an overreaction.

Grace, Peace, and Joy,
Chris and Jennifer


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