Our Mutual Burdens Bear

The Risky Business of Sacred Harp Singing

By Andy Ditzler

Sacred Harp Atlanta, Facebook.com, 4 July 2022

David and I got Covid at a Sacred Harp singing a couple of weeks ago. So did at least seven others. This situation has focused my mind a bit. So here are my thoughts.

I am aware of three recent (May and June 2022) Sacred Harp singings which were clearly Covid-spreading events, two in my own area:

  • Over twenty cases reported out of approximately 125 attendees
  • Thirteen cases reported out of approximately 90 attendees
  • Nine cases – including the entire tenor front bench – reported out of approximately 40 non-singing attendees and twenty-five singers

Over the past few months I personally have observed:

  • A singer I know to be anti-vaccine taking their seat at a singing advertised as “vaccine required”
  • A singer, after entering the square to lead, describing their current symptoms

I have heard a first-hand account of:

  • A singing advertised as requiring a negative antigen test on the day of singing, but when the singers arrived nothing was done to verify negative tests. At least thirteen attendees subsequently tested positive.

These are just cases that we know of. There are likely more.

For at least two of the above singings I am aware of no subsequent coordination by organizers to gather information, or inform singers who were exposed.

Despite my disappointment in these events, I know the people involved to be kind and caring. There’s just a wide gap between what we could be doing versus where we’re at right now.

Contrast this with the recent Double All Day singing in Portland:

  • Vaccine was required, and verified upon arrival; upon verification, wristbands were given for the weekend, which is a familiar thing to anyone who’s attended a large festival
  • Windows were opened during singing, and ceiling fans on. (I was skeptical that this would make a difference, but we were able to measure CO2 levels in the room, and the numbers were at safe levels.)
  • The chairman updated the class via social media a week after the singing: “a couple” of attendees reported infections, but investigation determined it was likely not from the singing; no other cases were reported among the approximately 100 singers
  • There appears to have been no spread at this singing, even though many attendees had traveled from distant places

In my experience, the dominant view among singers seems to be the hope that their recent Covid cases or booster shots have given them a window of immunity for a few months. But this does not appear to be true. The most reliable information we have suggests that the latest variants (especially B5, now increasing in America) are the most resistant ever to immunity from vaccines, and to immunity from prior cases.

Further, I myself have continued to test positive for Covid more than ten days after initial symptoms. Recent studies show that 25% of Omicron cases still have virus ten days after diagnosis.

None of this means that we need to stop singings. But it does mean that Sacred Harp singing remains – as it has been since the beginning of the pandemic – one of the riskiest possible activities for the transmission of Covid. It also means that how we conduct our singings is now revealing of ourselves in a way that it wasn’t before. It’s a statement to the world of how, and how much, we care for each other.

When we sing toward each other in full voice, we create the conditions for airborne transmission of Covid. Until infection rates are consistently much lower than now, the era of holding large Sacred Harp singings and conventions without explicit Covid precautions must come to an end – unless we are all willing to take the risk of regularly infecting each other, and repeatedly placing at risk the most vulnerable among us.

If the best we can say about singing safety is that our singings are “a calculated risk,” and if we cannot take any active steps to protect each other, and if we’re on our own when we get sick afterward, what kind of community is that? I say it’s not good enough.

Please think of the following list as a menu of options for effective precautions that can be taken at indoor singings:

  • Organizers should clearly state their expectations in advance, and stick to them
  • Stay home if you have symptoms: sore throat, cough, fever, cold-like or flu-like feelings
  • Require verification of a negative antigen test on the day of singing – but this only works if the entire class does it
  • Require verification of vaccination to sing in large groups. (I know that this one is an automatic no-go for some communities. But even without vaccines, you can still do anything else on this list.)
  • Ventilate the singing room: open the windows and doors
  • Follow-up by the organizers (let’s call this post-convention care): are there reports of infection after the singing? Do you need to check up on any vulnerable singers? Confidentiality must be assured.
  • Follow-up by the singers: notify the chair if you get sick within one week of a singing
  • If you get Covid, stay away from singing for two weeks. The singings will still be there when you return.

These precautions are effective, informed, ethical, compassionate, and easily achievable. They were formulated by a hardworking group of medical professionals who also happen to be Sacred Harp singers. We are all blessed to have them in our community. The difficulties they’ve faced in formulating and advocating for these precautions is a story for another time.

As we see from the real-world examples above, vaccine and testing precautions only work if they are verified by the organizers. Thus, the role of organizing singings now comes with increased responsibility. We singers should think about how we support organizers in this.

I know many places are already doing some of these. (One community I know requires a negative test for their weekly singing and they even supply tests – singers literally test themselves outside the singing before joining.) That’s great news. I can tell you that I’m aware of many singings that do not do any of these precautions at all. And that’s untenable for the future of our beloved practice.

None of these precautions are difficult; they are barely inconvenient, especially when compared with the disruption caused by getting Covid. So why aren’t we all doing them? After all,

We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

This page: https://bit.ly/3GZS3Wb