The Nigerian government on Tuesday advised citizens who are 55 years old and above to stay away from churches, mosques and other relative religious centres with large gatherings.
It also enjoined individuals with health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, HIV, among others to stay and worship at home.
It noted that the advice was necessary because places of worship have been recognised as a major avenue of potential spread of Coronavirus disease.
The government stated this through the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 Control. It released the guidelines for states to follow in discussions with religious leaders before the reopening of churches and mosques for worshippers.
According to the government, the protocols made available would be the baseline which the states are not expected to go below while firming up agreement with religious leaders.
Nigerians have been pressuring the government to reopen worship centres in spite of the spike in COVID-19 positive cases, leading to easing of restrictions on religious centres.
The PTF National Coordinator, Dr. Aliyu Sani, who announced the guidelines said religious centres should keep a record of attendees.
Dr. Sani said this would allow for contact tracing in the case of virus spread.
He urged worshippers experiencing common symptoms of COVID-19 to stay away from churches and mosques.
He said: “We are strongly advising vulnerable individuals such as those with underlying conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, HIV, cancer and those above the age of 55 years to please stay at home and consider remote participation or non-contact attendance.
“When we look at the death rate for persons who have died from COVID-19 in Nigeria, the case fatality rate; more than half of those that died were above the age of 50.
“Secondly, the case fatality rate if you are above the age of 50, is 17 per cent. If you are above the age of 55, it is 18 per cent. It is almost a one in five chances of dying if you catch COVID-19 and you fall within that group.
“Worshippers should be reminded not to attend in person if experiencing common symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, cough and shortness of breath or have had close contact with an infected person in the last 14 days.
“All worshippers noted to have temperature or are symptomatic should be turned back and not allowed admission.
“Places of worship should ideally keep up to date record of their staff including contact details and if possible, a record of attendees of church services for instance or a even small mosque to enable contact tracing in the event that somebody comes up positive.
“Considering the dangers posed by the pandemic, we strongly recommend that religious visits to homes by religious clerics should be discouraged.”
The national coordinator said: “It is important to note that due to the nature of religious congregations, places of worship are particularly recognised to have a major potential for spreading COVID -19 infection among worshippers and this has been clearly demonstrated in several outbreaks globally linked to religious gatherings.
“Places of worship that are unable to comply with these measures should not be allowed to operate by state governments.
“Churches are to open from 5am and close by 8pm. Each service should be for a maximum of one hour with an interval of 20 minutes in-between services to allow time for disinfection.”
He said the task force will not hesitate to shutdown religious centres if they fail to comply with the protocols developed for their reopening.
“These guidelines provide a baseline for the states to then develop their own policies specific to their areas depending on the prevalence of COVID-19, depending on whether or not people are likely to follow and comply fully.
“But we will be reviewing these guidelines from time to time and we will definitely review them if it looks like we are having issues with regards to this relaxation and I plead with the public to understand with us but more importantly, continue to stay safe.
“It is better to stay at home and worship than to go into a place of worship,” he emphasised.
Sani reminded Nigerians of the dangers posed by the virus, noting that now is not the time to relax measures against the pandemic.
“Let me make some clarifications because I understand there has been a lot of concern nationwide about the opening of places of worship.
“There is no doubt that COVID-19 is still around, there is no doubt that it is safer for you to stay at home and there is also no doubt that it is safer for you to worship at home.
“The PTF is providing safety advisory or guidance in the event that you need to upgrade your spiritual needs and you cannot do it at home but we are not making recommendations that people should go to places of worship but if they chose to, we are providing advisory to enable them to do so safely.
“COVID-19 has not gone away. You only need to look at the numbers. We are in the exponential stage of the illness. We have moved as a country right up to the third position in Africa and because of our population we could also move to the second position or even the first.
“So now is the time to continue to take precautionary measures. Now is not the time to relax. I hope I have made that clear.
“In view of the widespread community transmission of COVID -19, it is important that places of worship operate in a safe manner to ensure the protection of public health, avoid outbreaks and safeguard the health of vulnerable members of the population.”