Is it risky to sing together during the coronavirus pandemic, especially as we look forward to cherished Christmas carols?
Are the warnings real, or were earlier concerns overblown?
What do we know now that we weren’t sure about six months ago?
Over time, our understanding of the virus has increased. Our early questions were like asking, “Is driving a car safe?” But we’re now asking about the risks associated with the age of the driver, the type of car, and road conditions. We still don’t have crash ratings or car magazines, but we know more than we did at first.
What we’ve learned in recent months has come from three primary sources: (1) research studies on the particles produced by singing, (2) evolving views by researchers and public-health experts on the airborne transmission of the virus, and (3) practical strategies for real-world mitigation and measurement.
Before we get started, please note that I’m a worship pastor in a local church. While I do not have medical training, this article has been written in consultation with medical professionals. Some of the studies cited are still awaiting peer review. Thankfully, there is enough consensus on enough research that we can progress in our understanding.
Studies on Singing
Does singing produce more aerosols than speaking? Yes, but volume plays a major factor in how the question is answered. Researchers in the UK found no statistical difference in the aerosols produced by breathing, speaking, or singing at the lowest volume levels. Aerosol mass increased greatly as speaking and singing volume increased. Singing at the loudest volume produced an aerosol mass 1.5- to 3.4-times larger than yelling at the loudest volume.
A study by Swedish researchers helps to provide a sense of scale. In their experiment, the median particle emission rate per second was 135 particles for breathing, 270 particles for normal talking, 570 for loud talking, 690 for normal singing, and 980 for loud singing. Loud singing with a face mask was only 410. Studies in Germany and the United States provided complementary results. Researchers at the University of California Davis estimated that reducing volume by 10 decibels may be more effective at reducing the risk of airborne transmission than doubling the ventilation rate of a room.
How dangerous are these small aerosol particles, in comparison with larger droplets?
Throughout the pandemic, health experts have identified three possible means through which the virus can be spread––contact transmission (physical contact), droplet transmission (particles spread through the air, generally within six feet), and airborne transmission (smaller aerosol particles that can travel farther and remain suspended in the air for longer periods of time). Positions on this third route of transmission have continued to change throughout the pandemic. In July, more than 200 scientists with backgrounds in subjects such as aerosol physics, flow dynamics, and building engineering asked health agencies not to underestimate the possibility of aerosol transmission. Because studies were still being conducted, they urged a precautionary principle. In the following weeks, based on the research of these experts and other studies, the WHO updated its position to a certain degree. The CDC updated its position as well.
The WHO currently states that SARS-CoV-2 is primarily spread through close contact, but airborne transmission may occur “in specific settings, particularly in indoor, crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces, where infected person(s) spend long periods of time with others,” including “choir practices” and “places of worship.” The CDC agrees and offers a bit more specificity. It states that “most infections are spread through close contact, not airborne transmission,” but that “airborne transmission . . . can occur under special circumstances.” These special circumstances include “enclosed spaces,” “prolonged exposure to respiratory particles, often generated with expiratory exertion (e.g., shouting, singing, exercising),” and “inadequate ventilation or air handling.”
Some scientists say the analogy of cigarette or vaping smoke can help us roughly assess the risk of airborne transmission in different situations. If you jog past someone who is smoking outdoors, you might inhale a little, but it won’t last long. If you’re near a smoker in a small room without the HVAC on or the windows open, you’ll probably take in a lot. If you’re sitting a few rows from a smoker in a large auditorium, you’ll receive a diluted amount because the smoke has many more directions to spread. The amount produced, the cubic volume of the room, and its ventilation all play a factor in whether an infectious dose might be inhaled.
How do we translate this research to our churches? What constitutes a “long time” singing, and what is the standard for good air handling and ventilation? What is an acceptable level of risk?
The riskiest situations are those where heavy breathing and inadequate ventilation are combined for a lengthy duration. A church with low ceilings, an unmaintained HVAC system, and 45 minutes of loud singing presents a much higher risk for airborne transmission than a church with a high ceiling, good ventilation, and a few songs.
Here are some suggestions offered by the experts:
- If you haven’t already, start with the basics. Social distancing virtually eliminates the risk of droplet transmission. Masks reduce airborne transmission drastically by filtering aerosols at their source. Don’t overlook these solutions before looking to more complicated answers.
- Get to know your building’s ventilation. What’s the cubic volume of the room? How many times per hour does the air change? What percentage of that is fresh air? Do you need to open windows? Should you consider high-efficiency filters?
- If a room seems risky, you can take further steps to measure it. Some researchers have built risk calculators based on the statistics found in a variety of scientific papers. Another recommends that a CO2 meter can be used as a proxy for measuring ventilation in a room (although there are limitations for singing).
Each mitigation measure adds up. Musical groups may find the recommendations from the International Performing Arts Aerosol Study helpful, as well as parallel findings in the UK.
Church leaders facing competing priorities in this pandemic require great wisdom. Each congregation is unique in its demographics, physical meeting space, and the applicable regulations from local, state, and national sources. Singing is but one of many integral parts of corporate worship, and leaders need God’s help as they seek to lead in ways that maintain unity and honor God.
At the end of the day, if we have mitigation strategies but have not love, we are nothing.
If we have mitigation strategies but have not love, we are nothing. If we oppose mitigation strategies but have not love, we also are nothing. Instead, we must bear and endure all things, even through a pandemic (1 Cor. 13:7).
Because we love one another, we know that just as physical health is important, spiritual health is too. And one of the best mitigation strategies for the onslaught of depression felt by many in the pandemic might be to sing a song of praise to the Lord (Ps. 42:5). When we go long periods without singing, especially with God’s people, we’re not functioning the way our Creator made us.
That may mean singing safely at church together. Or it could be making a joyful noise at home along with a streamed worship service, adding a carol to our morning devotions or family dinner, or turning up the volume and singing worship music in our car. However we do it, the Lord wants us lift our hearts in praise to him.
May he guide us as we seek one another’s physical and spiritual good, both temporal and eternal.