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Churches, schools prepare for coronavirus

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Editor’s note: This article was updated 3/5. See the bottom of this page for the most recent diocesan statement related to the coronavirus and FAQs from the Arlington County Public Health Division.

The new threat of the coronavirus has led to less hand shaking and more hand sanitizing at Sunday Masses in recent weeks. While the Centers for Disease Control say there’s a low risk of contracting the coronavirus in the United States at this time, the diocesan Office of Risk Management still advised pastors to put precautions in place. 

In an email Feb. 13, the office recommended that parishes, “consider suspending the use of a common chalice during Communion, add hand sanitizers at church entrances, consider temporarily suspending shaking hands during the Sign of Peace and post a statement on the parish website and in the weekly bulletins asking people with known symptoms of influenza to refrain from attending Mass and other parish activities for the duration of their illness and up to 24 hours after the symptoms abate.” Many have implemented those changes. 

The Office of Catholic Schools similarly sent out a statement based on recommendations from health officials. “The Office of Catholic Schools is monitoring national, state and local responses to the possibility of an outbreak,” said Joseph Vorbach, diocesan superintendent of schools. “(We) will be in regular communication with school leadership about appropriate adjustments to the Pandemic Response Plan as dictated by new developments and CDC guidance.”

As there are no cases of COVID-19, or coronavirus, infection in Virginia as of March 3, health departments do not recommend school closures at this time. However, the CDC has issued warnings for several countries seeing cases of the virus, and students, teachers and faculty who recently traveled to said countries must contact their school to discuss their safe return. In some cases, they may need to self-isolate for up to 14 days upon return to the U.S.

Susan Infeld, parish nurse at St. John Neumann Church in Reston, has placed laminated posters featuring soap bubbles, a crown and the phrase “Stay Calm and Wash your Hands” in church restrooms, adding a bit of levity to the important advice. As with many health professionals, she recommends frequent hand washing, disinfecting frequently used objects in the home, avoiding contained crowds, eating a healthy diet, daily exercise, adequate sleep and reducing stress to prevent contracting the illness.

“As we pray that the coronavirus be eradicated and a cure or vaccine found, we all must take responsibility and do our part to stop the spread,” she wrote in a message to parishioners. “Our individual and collective efforts can be powerful in arresting this potentially deadly virus.”

Precautions have been taken at churches and holy sites worldwide. The French Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes announced that pilgrims were still welcome, but the pools the sick bathe in hoping for healing would be closed temporarily. "Our first concern will always be the safety and health of the pilgrims and the shrine's working community," said a note posted Feb. 28 on the shrine's website. "As a precaution, the pools have been closed until further notice." 

In the center of Rome, the French Church of St. Louis, home of three famous Caravaggio paintings, closed March 1 because a priest who had been resident at the church tested positive for the coronavirus upon returning to France Feb. 28 and was hospitalized. The 42-year-old priest was in satisfactory condition, the Archdiocese of Paris said.

The other two dozen members of the community of French priests at St. Louis were placed under a precautionary quarantine. The members included a priest who worked for Vatican Media in the former Vatican Radio building.

Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, wrote to Vatican media employees March 2, saying the quarantine was expected to be brief, since the priest who tested positive for the virus left Rome in mid-February; he had traveled to several cities in northern Italy, where the outbreak has been much worse. In addition, the Vatican media employee had no symptoms.

"As a prudential measure," Ruffini said, the Vatican City health and hygiene service "sanitized and cleaned the office of our colleague and common areas" of the building.

The French Embassy to the Holy See announced late March 2 that Italian health officials had lifted the quarantine on the community at St. Louis Church and that the church would reopen to the public March 4.

Many European churches have emptied holy water fonts and several dioceses recommended Catholics receive Communion only in the hand. Large indoor meetings, conferences and Lenten reflections scheduled for March also were canceled or postponed, including a meeting in Assisi, Italy, March 26-28 called "The Economy of Francis." The international gathering of young adult activists, economists, scholars and entrepreneurs to discuss creating a more inclusive economy was supposed to include a closing address by Pope Francis. The meeting has been postponed until November.

The Italian civil protection service said 1,577 people in Italy had the coronavirus as of 6 p.m. March 1. A total of 1,694 people had tested positive since the beginning of the outbreak; 83 recovered and 34 people had died. Only about one-third of those who tested positive required hospitalization; the others were being treated at home.

Cindy Wooden from Catholic News Service contributed to this article. 

 faq coronavirus

Diocesan response to coronavirus concerns

Various office directors and members of senior leadership at the Diocese of Arlington have been  communicating actively and meeting with county public health departments and communicating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ensure that all diocesan parishes, schools, ministries and charities are responding appropriately to the spread of the coronavirus and other infectious diseases. 

Local experts have briefed the diocese and made clear that Arlington and surrounding counties currently have taken a posture of prevention of the coronavirus until circumstances change. As such, our current response is oriented toward avoiding the spread of the disease and preparing in the event that occurrences of coronavirus were to appear within the Northern Virginia or Washington area. 

Based on CDC guidance and out of an abundance of caution, the diocese reissued recommendations to parishes, which had been suggested previously. These protocols currently are left to the discretion of each pastor:

— Suspend the use of a common chalice during Holy Communion.

 — Provide hand sanitizer at church entrances. 

— Suspend the shaking of hands during the Sign of Peace.  

All expert opinions highlight the critical need to wash hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible, and covering your mouth with a tissue or sleeve (not your hands) when sneezing or coughing.  

The diocese asks our employees and parishioners exhibiting common symptoms of illness (fever, cough, body aches) to:   

— Not report to work until 24 hours after symptoms abate; 

— Refrain from attending Mass and other parish activities and diocesan events until 24 hours after symptoms abate. 

Those who refrain from attending Mass due to illness should consider devoting an hour to prayer, observing Mass on television or the internet, and/or praying a rosary. While nothing can replace attending and participating in Sunday Mass or receiving Holy Communion, those who refrain from Sunday Mass due to illness have not committed a mortal sin. When sick, observing the Sabbath with another holy devotion and prayer demonstrates good will and sincerity. 

Diocesan leadership will continue to be in contact with public health officials who are monitoring the situation, and we will assess whether a different response is needed as circumstances change. 




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020