By Kirk Petersen
By the time of the closing gavel, nearly three dozen people at the 80th General Convention in Baltimore had tested positive for COVID. But a consulting epidemiologist said it would have been a lot worse if the convention had not taken extensive precautions.
Dr. Rodney Coldren was a soothing presence throughout the convention, providing both houses with running updates of infection numbers, along with reminders of best practices. He was brought on in May to consult with the House of Deputies (and later the House of Bishops), and his recommendations led to cutting the length of the convention in half.
All participants in convention had Coldren’s cell phone number, and were asked to text him if they had questions or tested positive. He told TLC after the convention that “I know of 34 individuals from this community who have tested positive.” These included 24 deputies, two bishops, and spouses, staff, and volunteers. He declined to say whether anyone was seriously ill.
“I just want to say how impressed I am at how well the house abided by the requests, and how effective, I believe, the policies put in place were,” he said. Without adherence to precautions, he estimated, there would have been 75 to 80 infections, even with the shortened format.
When eight people (of about 60 present) tested positive after an April Executive Council meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the church quickly moved to slash the size and duration of the convention — incurring a financial hit of more than $1 million.
The convention was reduced from eight legislative days to four, the massive exhibit hall was closed, most social events were canceled, and visitors and staff were strictly limited. Participants were given kits for daily, self-administered tests, and were asked to wear masks whenever indoors, except to eat or drink.
No food was allowed at deputation tables, and to keep the bishops and deputies from cross-infecting, the time-honored practice of bishops joining their deputations for a photo op was prohibited. Compliance with mask mandates was quite high, and rigorously enforced by an army of volunteers.
Coldren is a retired colonel who led the U.S. Army’s COVID response in Europe early in the pandemic.
Note: An earlier version of this article said three bishops were among the people who tested positive. Coldren later clarified that only two of the bishops had tested positive in Baltimore, and a third tested positive before the convention and stayed home. The article has been updated accordingly.