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COVID-19 calling

As the deadly disease hit the United States, Christians began praying, planning, and caring for their communities

COVID-19 calling

Workers remove a patient from Life Care Center of Kirkland, Wash. (Grant Hindsley/The New York Ti​mes/Redux)

By early March the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease had spread to more than 110 countries and topped 118,000 cases worldwide. Three-­quarters of its 4,000 deaths had occurred in China, but non-China cases began multiplying.

COVID-19 first struck the United States in the Seattle area. After the first deaths came at a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., in late February, authorities decided to close schools in an “abundance of caution.” 

Costco stores reported up to five times the regular number of members entering hourly. Entrance lines at the Lynnwood, Wash., warehouse store stretched around the building, and police arrived to keep order as customers tried to cut the line and force their way in. Employees reported shoppers stockpiling toilet paper, cleaning wipes, and food staples, emptying shelves. Situations at other stores matched.

Churches in the area also saw the effect of the coronavirus scare. In early March, many had noticeably fewer congregants in the pews. Reach Church, which meets in a public high school in Kirkland, canceled its services.  

“We think folks should begin to think about avoiding large events and assemblies,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a March 1 press conference. More “social distancing” would come.

Businesses headquartered in the region encouraged employees to plan for telecommuting, and fewer cars on the road indicated many had already begun to work from home. Sports teams and clubs canceled most after-school and evening events.

Bothell resident Leigh Laird said her sons’ school district closed on March 3: “This is the first time in all the years that my kids have been there that I’ve seen the school district close the schools due to illness, even though we have had some nasty flus in past years.” Christians should “pray Psalm 91 over our families and communities,” she said.

At Covenant Presbyterian Church in Issaquah, Wash., Pastor Eric Irwin preached his March 1 sermon from Luke 14:26 and related it to the current crisis: “To hate your life means you don’t live primarily to protect your life. If you get the coronavirus and die taking care of other people, that’s a life well spent. … Staying alive is not the ultimate good. The glory of God is the only ultimate good.”

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A New York supermarket’s shelves sit largely bare on March 1 as shoppers stockpile goods. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

ON MARCH 6, officials in Austin, Texas, canceled this year’s South by Southwest, the city’s massive film, music, and tech conference. It would have started March 13.

More than 400,000 people attended last year. But by March 6, more than 50,000 people had signed an online petition to cancel it. Big businesses such as Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Netflix had withdrawn from the festival.

In early March—before South by Southwest’s cancellation—Christians were preparing for a possible COVID-19 outbreak.

Austin Disaster Relief Network (ADRN) is a group of 185 churches that trains volunteers to work together in crises. In 2018, ADRN Director Daniel Geraci told WORLD’s Marvin Olasky: “God so loves the world and His church that He’s preparing the church to be the best asset when disaster strikes—not the one where the city says, ‘Stay away,’ but the one that provokes a ‘We need these guys’ response.”

Geraci told WORLD ADRN is coordinating with the Emergency Operations Center for the city of Austin regarding the coronavirus. ADRN stocks supplies for disaster response, with volunteers and vehicles ready to deliver them if needed. The leadership team was praying about opening an emotional and spiritual care hotline, and its prayer room already had people praying specifically that COVID-19 will stop spreading. An epidemiologist adviser held conference calls with church leaders to answer questions and talk about responses. 

Some Austin church leaders contacted the Austin Baptist Association (ABA) for advice. Director David Smith said ABA encourages pastors to read the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website and create a plan suited to their congregation. He also encourages them to connect with other local churches.

ABA member Hillcrest Church has about 350 regular attendees. Karen Oden leads the children’s ministry and recently sent parents the church’s good health policy as a reminder: “Here are the policies we already have,” she said. “Let’s just make sure we’re already doing even higher standards of what we already do.” Oden said the most impor­tant thing is “trusting that God’s going to see us through all this, and if things go bad, trusting that God is still good and it will be OK.”

Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune via AP

A school in Wisconsin is closed for cleaning after someone testing positive for the coronavirus attended a function. (Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune via AP)

CHRISTIAN EDUCATIONAL institutions are warily monitoring the situation on COVID-19 as more and more cases in the United States appear not to be associated with international travel but to have spread within communities. Given the close-contact, highly transient nature of campus environments, campus administrators are seeking ways to prevent and prepare for an outbreak.

By March 13, at least 30 members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) had suspended in-person classes.

Most schools have posted alerts on their websites and advised staff and students not to travel to high-risk countries and to take preventive measures such as washing their hands and minimizing close contact with someone who’s sick. Many schools activated emergency management teams to communicate with public health officials and assess conditions daily. Cleaning crews wiped down often-used surfaces such as door handles, tables, and drinking fountains with hospital-grade disinfectants each day.

Some schools suspended international programs in high-exposure areas, following recommendations from the CDC. Western Europe is one of the top destinations for U.S. students studying abroad. Italy—where COVID-19 had the strongest foothold in Europe—hosted about 37,000 U.S. students for the 2017-18 academic year. But in early March U.S. schools began suspending study programs there. 

Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., has suspended its international programs in China, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland for the semester. Taylor University in Upland, Ind., is also bringing home its study-abroad students in Italy and has canceled a spring semester study-abroad trip to China. Returning students must self-quarantine at home for at least 14 days before returning to campus. 

The decisions frustrated many students whose semesters abroad ended early. Spencer Schmidt, a Pepperdine sophomore in the Florence, Italy, program, said though students were following the coronavirus outbreak in Italy—as of March 10 the country had more than 10,000 cases and more than 600 deaths—most of them weren’t worried: “We’re all 19, 20, 21 years old. We have strong immune systems. This is just like the flu, and we were smart enough to be aware of that.” He wasn’t surprised when Pepperdine brought home students from China, but he held high hopes for the Florence program right until he received the email from Pepperdine.

Meanwhile, the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), an organization of Christian K-12 schools, encouraged its members to monitor the World Health Organization and CDC websites for the most current information and be proactive in communication about canceling school trips, quarantines, or possible school closures. 

“The most important measures to take at this point are to continue to pray, stay calm yet vigilant, and maintain coordination and communication on all matters related to this evolving situation,” said ACSI spokesman Larry Lincoln.

Jenny Lind Schmitt reported from King County, Wash., Charissa Koh reported from Austin, Texas,  and Sophia Lee reported from Los Angeles.

WORLD has updated this report after its original posting.

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny is a correspondent for WORLD Radio and WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and Smith College graduate. She is the author of the novel Mountains of Manhattan and resides in Porrentruy, Switzerland, with her family. Follow her on Twitter @jlindschmitt.

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  • DS
    Posted: Thu, 03/12/2020 04:29 pm

    Very Scary

  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 03/13/2020 12:54 am

    The opportunity for real containment passed us by long ago. The opportunity to live as God's faithful in the midst of the storm remains.

  • GaryG
    Posted: Fri, 03/13/2020 09:07 am

    I am disappointed that World is following mainstream media hysteria on this topic.  This is an article about how humans are panicking, not actual threat from the disease itself.  The attention given to this disease is remarkably out of proportion to the threat.  Putting "deadly disease" in the headline only feeds the irrational fear monster.

  • MM
    Posted: Fri, 03/13/2020 09:18 pm

    Agreed. Thank you, GaryG for expressing this. I also appreciated the rational response of the Pepperdine sophomore above. Thank you for including that paragraph.

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Fri, 03/13/2020 11:03 am

    I agree that we are to live sacrificially, just as Jesus was obedient to the sacrifice that was set before Him.  I know that the Lord can use even this pandemic for His glory and I pray to that end.