It’s not time to end masking and social distancing at worship services, health officials caution.

The Mississippi State Department of Health issued updated guidance on Monday for faith-based gatherings and worship services. The safest options, the agency said, continue to be virtual services and outdoor services.

MSDH recommends everyone 16 and older get vaccinated against COVID-19, even if the individual has been previously infected.

The potential exposure of older individuals at worship services continues to be a major concern.

For those over 65 or who are vulnerable, “You don’t need to have any social gathering, go to church or any large thing like that, until you get vaccinated,” State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said last week. “If you look at where our deaths are, almost all the deaths we have are people who are 50 and older. And, if we get all of those folks vaccinated and protected, it’s a different game.”

People 65 and older and those with high-risk conditions shouldn’t attend until reaching full vaccination, which is considered two weeks after the second dose of a two-dose vaccine, or two weeks after receiving a single-dose vaccine.

The following guidance is recommended for indoor, in-person services:

n All congregants should wear a face mask at all times.

n All congregants should maintain distancing of 6 feet from persons outside of their household. Members of the same household may sit together.

n Congregants should not gather in close groups while entering or exiting the building.

n Congregants should use hand sanitizer prior to or upon entry of the building.

n Because singing is a high-risk activity that can quickly spread virus particles, choirs are still discouraged. If choirs do perform, they should be small in number, with individuals masked and spaced 6 feet apart.

n Masking and distancing should be practiced in classroom settings for Sunday school or study groups.

n Alternatives to shared cups for communion should be practiced.

n The use of hymn books or prayer books is acceptable as long as congregants practice proper hand hygiene upon entering.

On Tuesday, MSDH reported 163 new positive COVID-19 test results and 12 additional deaths, with five of those occurring March 27-28 and seven occurring between Jan. 1 and March 23 as identified from death certificate reports. As of Monday morning, Magnolia Regional Health Center had four patients hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19.

Staff Writer

Jebb Johnston is a 1991 Alcorn Central High School graduate and a 1995 Ole Miss journalism graduate. His primary beats are city and county government.

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