On May 5, I joined upwards of 5,000 of my colleagues across the singing community in a webinar called “A Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing?” As you might imagine, the reactions from that large of a crowd were intense and widespread across the emotional spectrum from hope to despair. I’d like to offer my own observations through the lens of reopening that has unfortunately become a political issue mostly along partisan lines, especially here in Eastern Washington.
Five national performing arts sector organizations collaborated on this presentation: National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), Chorus America, American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Barbershop Harmony Society, and Performing Arts Medicine Association (PAMA). I am continually inspired by how the performing arts can serve as a model to other industries and government leaders regarding the spirit of working together, especially when facing a global pandemic. I, myself, am a proud member of ACDA and Chorus America.
The first part of the presentation was given by Dr. Donald Milton, Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health and School of Medicine. Milton’s work centers around interrelated areas of infectious bioaerosols and respiratory epidemiology. He went into great detail explaining how the coronavirus works and why it is so deadly. A few highlights:
- The virus has only been around for 5 months and we are still learning about it. Compare that to the fact that after over a century of influenza study, we still don’t have fully effective vaccines for all flu strains.
- Asymptomatic transmission is a major issue. This virus is different from SARS strains in which transmission doesn’t occur until later in the course of the disease when symptoms are very present. In COVID-19, a lot of spreading occurs while people are asymptomatic.
- Exhalation is problematic since particles are generated and expelled; singing exhalations are more significant and powerful.
- In multiple case studies, virus particles were identified in almost every circumstance that was tested; even socially distanced groups of people sitting in a room with average ventilation who weren’t singing still showed virus spread.
- It is highly likely that the virus can be inhaled; contamination can occur without coming into contact with a contaminated surface.
Otolaryngologist Dr. Lucinda Halstead, founder and medical director of the Evelyn Trammell Institute for Voice and Swallowing at the Medical University of South Carolina, spoke next. She expanded on Dr. Milton’s observations:
- There is a 15% chance of dying from the virus if you are 60+ years of age.
- Many severe infection cases were shown to have started in churches.
- The two primary keys to reopening are wide-spread testing via the Polymerase Chain reaction (PCR) test (which has a 3–5% false negative rate) as well as contact screening.
- The Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) as shared by the Bill Gates Foundation is not as sensitive as the PCR test. RDT has higher false negative rates, you need to be symptomatic for it to be positive, and it has been deemed unsafe to use for singing groups.
- Vaccine development will likely take 18–24 months and effective drug treatments will take 6–12 months.
The best case scenario Dr. Halstead offered for reopening choral rehearsals and performances in the near future (before a vaccine is developed) included administering a three-step screening process for each individual in a private space as they enter the venue:
- PCR virus test
- temperature reading that must be below 99.4 F
- pulse oximetry check that must be 94% or higher
She further emphasized that any organization would be engaging in “high risk” behavior to proceed without PCR or other COVID-19 testing protocols in place.
Additionally, both doctors discussed how infection rates have been shown in people who have already had the disease, and that having antibodies is not a proven protection at this point.
I’m not a doctor or a scientist, nor do I pretend to be one on social media. But I put my trust in information from proven leading experts in the medical and scientific fields, especially when we are talking about an invisible virus that has a significantly higher infection rate than the flu, whose death toll has not yet slowed to a manageable level.
I also realize that nowadays you can peruse the internet and find a video or article from a “doctor” or claimed industry expert that will inevitably favor your position on virtually any issue. That’s why I do my research and don’t just take everything at face value. The two doctors that took part in this webinar put together a comprehensive handout of links to fact-based, peer-reviewed research articles by accredited outlets.
The day after the presentation, a video circulated trying to convince people not to wear masks by Dr. Judy Mikovits, who claims to be a top U.S. virologist. Upon further investigation, I discovered that she is a known fringe conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine activist who regularly attacks actual industry experts. The mere suggestion that wearing a mask in public during a global pandemic is somehow more dangerous than not wearing one strikes me as incredibly off-base and fundamentally wrong. Fortunately, the next few days led to a publication of numerous articles that discredited her position.
My choral organization, Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, will be considering these recommendations moving forward. For now, we fully intend to abide by state law and wait for Phase 4 of Governor Jay Inslee’s plan, which outlines our ability to gather for rehearsals and conduct live performances. We are currently targeted to enter Phase 4 around mid-July, but only under the best-case scenario, according to the state’s data and measurement systems. But even if we were able to legally reopen sooner than mid-July, the PCR test is not widely available right now, and we don’t know how much they will cost. In fact, no significant wide-spread testing is currently taking place at our state level, let alone at a national level. We do not own rapid temperature taking devices or pulse oximetry testing devices.
Additionally, we do not have access to PPE, masks, gloves, or hand sanitizer. And even if we were able to accumulate enough for our singers to reopen rehearsals, we would need much more for our audiences in order to reopen live performances.
With all of that in mind, I have to ask: are local businesses and government leaders who are hellbent on immediate reopening aware of this information? Are they fully prepared with the proper equipment to protect workers and customers? Are they planning to implement screening procedures for customers as they enter stores? Do those stores have high-quality room ventilation capabilities? Have they polled their customers and collected data about a timeline for when customers will return or what protocols need to be in place for them to consider coming back? Have they developed a relationship with the Benton-Franklin Health District and consulted with them about reopening?
What comforts me is knowing who’s not rushing to reopen right now: performing arts organizations, including our local partners in the Tri-Cities area. They’re not trying to buck the system, not filing baseless lawsuits against government officials, not crying out about the loss of their “constitutional rights,” and not fueling their constituents to buy in to shallow theories devoid of medical and scientific knowledge.
The closing slide of the webinar had a picture of a large chorus and orchestra filling a stage with a caption saying: “Be Patient—The Time Will Come.”
Bravo to the performing arts sector for its systematic prioritization of the health and lives of our many stakeholders. Together, we can and will be patient.