Road-Map Back to Choral Normality

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Get a cuppa, this one is longer than usual.

With the news that we have multiple effective vaccines for Covid19, it is time to start envisaging how their protection will allow choirs to come back to something approaching normal. It’s easy to see the Before scenario (where we are now), and the After scenario (rehearsing and performing back in our regular venues, as we used to before March 2020). What is less easy is to envisage the process by which one becomes the other.

This post is intended to think through at least some of the questions our new situation poses. I’m writing with an eye for the specific circumstances of my chorus, but also with an awareness of the range of circumstances other groups find themselves in. The variables, and thus the answers people come to, will differ between choirs, but many of the types of variable we need to consider will be common across us all.

First, what we know about the vaccines. They all require two doses, 3 or 4 weeks apart, and they don’t offer their fullest protection until a couple of weeks after the second dose. So there’s a good 6 weeks between your first appointment and your maximum protection. Also, the wonderful efficacy rates are derived from situations in which people are still minimising contact, distancing, and wearing masks. So even after those 6 weeks, you might not want to go to an all-night rave in a covid hotspot.

The point about vaccines, though, is not just the individual protection, wonderful as that is, but the way that once a bunch of us are protected, the virus loses a lot of its potential hosts and thus transmission routes, leading to significant drops in case numbers. This means that for everyone, including those who can’t have the vaccine, your chances of meeting the virus are hugely reduced so the world at large goes back to the ordinary level of dangerous that we are used to coping with. At that point, raves – and choral rehearsals – can resume as we know and love them.

At the moment, where choral rehearsals are happening at all, they are hedged about with a range of risk mitigation measures that make things less comfortable than usual, and which we would like not to have to do any more when we don’t have to. The main ones are: ostentatious levels of ventilation (rehearsing outdoors in our case), social distancing, smaller groups than usual, shorter durations than usual, and wearing masks. The process by which we can stop doing all these seems, to me, to have two dimensions, one technical and the other human.

The technical side of things is about risk assessment, and is, to an extent, calculable. The key questions are:

  1. How many choir members are vaccinated? If everyone is, great! Nobody presents any significant covid-related danger to anyone else. If you’ve only got one unvaccinated person, they’re not going to be in danger in a roomful of people who have been vaccinated. [Edit: see update below for a discussion of why this assumption might not actually be sound.] Once you have more than one unvaccinated person present, you need to start considering how you protect them from each other.
  2. How many unvaccinated singers can your rehearsal venue accommodate safely, and for how long? One of the reasons we are having to sing outside and for short durations is that the volume of air you need per singer for any length of time is more than most choirs can access in their normal venues. But a venue that could safely accommodate a trio or quartet can also safely accommodate a bigger choir with only 3 or 4 unvaccinated members. You’d still need to be thinking about other mitigations, e.g. spacing them out in the choral stack to maximise the distance between them, but there comes a point when a high enough proportion of the choir is vaccinated for otherwise unsafe venues or rehearsal durations to become viable once again. There is a useful tool here for making these calculations.
  3. How many covid cases are there in your area? This is the wider context that will condition how you approach the risk assessment overall. If you live in Taiwan or New Zealand or Bermuda (hello cousins!), you need worry about all this much less, if at all. For those of us living amidst significant community transmission, this variable is as important as the proportion of choir members vaccinated for assessing the risk that the unvaccinated pose to each other.

So far I’ve been talking about the unvaccinated as a single category, as for the technical side of risk assessment, it makes no difference why someone is not vaccinated. Whether it’s because you can’t have the vaccine for health reasons, because you prefer not to have the vaccine, or because the roll-out hasn’t got to you yet, you still need to be protected.

However, as we come to the human side of the question, it might well start to make a difference. This part of the equation can’t be calculated, but has to be negotiated, and is thus potentially more difficult. Choral directors can ask the questions, and offer guidance, but it is the choir management, in consultation with membership, that needs to own choir policy.

A couple of thought experiments to illustrate the issues:

One can imagine a point at which a good many of the choir have been vaccinated, and are looking forward to meeting as a whole group, indoors for a full evening’s rehearsal once again. They’ll likely be patient and do a few more weeks outside in small groups if others (probably the younger members) are still waiting to be offered the vaccine. If however the number of unvaccinated members continues to exceed the safe capacity of their normal venue because some people have refused the vaccine through mistrust of big pharma, one can imagine people who have shivered through a cold winter’s outdoor rehearsing eager to go back inside anyway, leaving the unvaccinated literally out in the cold.

Or, one can imagine a choir with members who cannot be vaccinated all agreeing to continue wearing masks in solidarity with those who can’t be protected, but being reluctant to do so in solidarity with those who have refused the vaccine.

The all-for-one, one-for-all spirit that has held us together through the dark months of choral exile is in danger of being fragmented in these negotiations. Some people may regard a refusal of the vaccine as a selfish act that betrays that spirit by putting your own prejudices ahead of the good of the group. Others might see any move to leave the unvaccinated behind, or to require them to continue with extra mitigations on the return to normal rehearsal as an exclusionary act that likewise betrays that spirit. Both would have a point.

Lurking behind these negotiations are the questions as to what extent it’s even reasonable to ask people about their vaccination status. On one hand, the principle of medical privacy is really important. On the other, how on earth do you do risk assessment without information like this?

Having worked through these questions, the following principles rise to the top for me:

  • The point remains, above all, to protect choir members from inadvertently infecting each other with covid. Any discussion of different treatment of vaccinated and unvaccinated choir members has to keep this as the primary focus.
  • Negotiations on the human side of the question have to remain rooted in the calculations of the technical side. Keep the context concrete, and it comes down to decisions between a limited range of viable solutions, rather than a test of love.
  • No decision taken in 2021 is likely to be final; this is about managing interim conditions. Hence it is all the more important not to draw lines in the sand; we need to mollify each other with the comfort that any and all suboptimal solutions are merely interim.

Thanks to those people who have been in touch to point out that whilst the vaccination will certainly reduce transmission, we are not yet sure that it will prevent it, and hence unvaccinated people need to be protected from all, not just each other.

This inflects my second thought experiment, in which all will need to keep wearing masks for practical reasons not just solidarity. It also complicates the calculations of safe numbers for room size/ventilation, though it looks likely we'll have more data to inform these by the time we are in a position to need them for real. And it puts attention back onto the importance of general prevalence in the risk assessment.

For the record, it is actually a coincidence that this was published on the very day that the UK's vaccination programme started. We knew it was coming, so I'd been thinking about this a lot, but the timing was fortuitous!

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