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Exploring the impact of COVID-19 on churches and worshiping communities

Online learning opportunities are available this month

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

A flow cytometer helps ensure that cells are analyzed independently as they pass by a laser beam at rates of 10,000 cells per second or more. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Commissioned Ruling Elder Lisa Allgood, a trained immunocytochemist and transitional executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Cincinnati, will present an update on Zoom about the most recent findings on COVID-19 and its impact on the human body.

The update, hosted by the Presbytery of Northern New England and the Presbytery of Boston, will be held from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern Time Aug. 11 and from 7-8 p.m. Eastern Time  Aug. 12. Allgood will provide a brief presentation on scientific discoveries related to COVID-19 and how to interpret this information for worshiping communities. Each presentation will include question-and-answer time. The presentations also will be accessible through the Presbytery of Boston’s Facebook page (live) and recorded and available on both presbytery websites, under Resources: COVID-19.

Allgood grew up in the New York City area, graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in biology. She then completed a degree in immunocytochemistry at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, knowing she wanted to do research rather than practice medicine.

The science of immunocytochemistry helps researchers determine which antibodies will bind to specific components in the body (proteins or antigens) to trigger an immune response that helps fight infection and build immunity. A technique known as flow cytometry makes it possible to study the proteins and the immune cells at the sub-cellular level.

“The verse from Esther, ‘for such a time as this,’ has resonated around the presbytery for a while,” Allgood said. “It’s more than a bit weird to have worlds collide — an immunologist impersonating a presbyter during a pandemic unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and with the arsenal of science unleashed in understanding this thing.”

Sometimes Allgood feels as if she has inundated pastors and sessions in the presbytery with everything the science world is learning about the virus, as it is learned. “Because the presbytery spans three states, I keep everyone up to date as best I can with what each governor is putting in place for restrictions,” she said. As the Association of Mid Council Leaders learned about her background, they’ve asked for updates during Zoom meetings. Some presbyters have asked her to join in Zoom calls with their pastors as well.

Allgood spent 36 years in the pharmaceutical industry, first at Merck, Sharp and Dohme in New Jersey, where she ran the flow cytometry laboratories in the days before personal computers. During this time she worked in immunology and virology with boards of health on five continents, researching monoclonal antibodies, cellular activation, rhinovirus and a virus then known as HTLV3/HTLV4 — now known as HIV.

After realizing that she was way too social a person to spend the rest of her life alone in a little dark laboratory, Allgood moved into clinical research at Merck, working with researchers around the country testing potential medicines and vaccines in humans. She moved to Cincinnati in 1989 to work with Procter & Gamble as it started into over-the-counter and pharmaceutical product areas. She ended up spending 26 years running that company’s clinical and then regulatory divisions, working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration across all OTC products. Because she had experience in both pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter products, she led the teams working on the switch of Aleve and Prilosec from prescription only to OTC.

In 2015, after her retirement from Procter & Gamble, Allgood worked three years for a small contract research organization, Medpace, in Cincinnati, helping to build out a regulatory group. In 2018, she retired again and, she said, fully intended to stay retired to travel, do some photography, garden, be with her daughters and volunteer on two boards that she is part of: Sinapis, a Christian nonprofit based in Kenya that trains entrepreneurs, and Women Helping Women in Cincinnati, which is dedicated to preventing gender-based violence and empowering survivors.

Rather than a cradle Presbyterian, Allgood calls herself a “prenatal Presbyterian.” Her history with the church goes back way before the cradle.

Commissioned Ruling Elder Lisa Allgood (Contributed photo)

She was ordained as a ruling elder in 2005. She served on the sessions of two Presbyterian churches in Cincinnati and as clerk of session for one of these churches. In 2017, when the Rev. Dr. Nancy Kahaian joined the Presbytery of Cincinnati as general presbyter, Allgood began working on the Committee on Ministry and then on the Evaluate and Imagine Team to devote a year to dissecting and reconfiguring 30 years of presbytery practice to be more supportive and connected within the presbytery, and more relevant and influential regionally. When Kahaian left the presbytery to pursue work as an interim pastor, something she’d been wanting to do, the council asked Allgood to stay for a few months to “keep the lights on,” since she’d been such a part of the restructuring.

“Eighteen months later I’m still here,” said Allgood, who finished commissioned ruling elder training in 2019 at Kahaian’s request. “I’ve learned a ton, especially having served with Nancy, and with some great leadership here. We’ve moved the programs forward and even further into some very new and exciting areas.” The presbytery will conduct a search for a presbyter this fall.

During this time of COVID-19 pandemic, Allgood has some scientific wisdom and practical advice for individuals and worshiping communities:

  • Don’t mess with this one.
  • Follow the guidance that’s given, because the states don’t specifically include places of worship in their guidance.
  • The virus is highly infectious and sneaky because people are infectious two or more days before they show symptoms, if they show symptoms at all; up to 40% never really do, which means you’ll never know if you’re in front of someone who’s infected.
  • The vaccine work is promising and progressing, but at the earliest likely won’t be widely available until early 2021.
  • Treatment work is progressing and physicians are learning every day; treatment outcomes are better than they have been, but the death rate is at about 1% (roughly 10 times that of the flu), and the rate of potential long-term serious consequences is much higher.
  • The virus can cause serious, long-lasting consequences across an array of body symptoms: organ damage, including heart, lung, kidney, liver and pancreas; micro-clots causing strokes, even in young people, as well as seizures and cognitive impairment, with other neurologic consequences as well — even a case of psychosis.

So much is not yet known about the long-term effects of the virus, according to Allgood. For example, whether re-infection can occur (natural immunity for asymptomatic or mild cases is weak and short-lived) or whether the virus can become latent (stay in the body but become dormant for a period of time before re-emerging).

The virus has been shown to mutate, albeit slowly; that coupled with the observation that natural immunity appears weak and short-lived means eventual vaccines may need to take this into account, potentially making annual vaccinations and boosters necessary.

The current spikes — still the first wave of the virus — appear to come from community spread and small gatherings, including of course churches, not from the wave of protests or increased testing.

From a church aspect, Allgood recommends worshiping communities continue to take these precautions:

  • Wear masks. (Face shields are not a good substitute, since air still flows underneath them.)
  • Keep physically distant (at least six feet).
  • Limit building utilization as much as possible, if you are back worshiping in the building; worship outside or, better yet, virtual for now if at all possible.
  • If doing hybrid virtual/in-person hybrid services, make sure the worship first honors God, then those who are with you online. Let those in the pews be the witnesses, not the focus of the service.
  • Sanitize all surfaces. (The virus has been shown to stay viable on impermeable surfaces for about 3–4 days and on permeable surfaces for 1–2 days.)
  • Absolutely limit anything that’s touched by multiple people (hymnals, communion and collection ware, etc.).
  • No singing. (Singing is like four minutes of a sustained cough in the way it projects aerosols, and projects farther than simple speech, 18–24 feet.)
  • No air conditioning or ceiling fans (even with fancy filters, the air that leaves the AC may be clean but AC air is pushed down and over the people in the pews, cycling around the room — so if it flows over someone infected to the people around him or her, the air is no longer filtered and is now infectious. When that recycled, exhaled air flows for more than 15 minutes over someone, that’s peak chance of becoming infected). One thing congregations could do is run the AC to get the building cool, then turn it off during the service.
  • If you’re aware of someone being exposed, shut everything down and clean it, and inform your local board of health so they can contact trace who else may be infected.
  • Simply be safe. God is in control. But yes, humans can be brought down by a microscopic particle we don’t even really call “living.”

Allgood joined in a COVID-19 Update Zoom call in mid-July with Church Leaders Managing COVID-19 Challenges, a group primarily from the Maumee Valley Presbytery.

“The most stunningly simple personal lesson for me is that everything God has taken me through in life and in my career led me to this place and time to do this work. Thank goodness for transferable skills,” Allgood said. “And if that’s true, then everything I do today leads me to tomorrow. So I need to do it with prayerful intentionality, deliberate action and in humble obedience.”

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