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Want safe church re-openings? Follow CDC guidelines, infectious disease expert says

Denver Newsroom, May 24, 2020 / 12:35 pm (CNA).- Timothy Flanigan, M.D., worked to combat the deadly Ebola outbreak of 2014.

If someone asks him, “Is it safe for me to go to Mass?” Flanigan has one answer: “Are they following the guidelines the CDC has provided us to decrease the risk of transmission?”

In his view, it is the wrong question to ask whether it is safer to go to Home Depot than to go to church.

Rather, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines for group gatherings are paramount.

“The question is: can I follow the CDC guidance just as carefully, in each setting, in order to decrease transmission of coronavirus? Can I maintain safe distancing? Can I maintain good hand hygiene? Can I ensure that I am not ill?” said Flanigan, a professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

“Following that guidance is so important for all of us to do,” he told CNA May 21. “Whether it’s in a mall, whether it’s in a supermarket, whether it’s in an office building, whether it’s in a meeting.”

The novel coronavirus, technically known as Covid-19, has killed over 94,000 Americans and infected more than 1.5 million since January, the CDC reports.

Flanigan is also a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. He is part of the Working Group on Infectious Disease Protocols for Sacramental and Pastoral Care, a project of the Thomistic Institute at the Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. The group has put out guidelines on the sacraments pastoral care and the restoration of public Masses.

In 2014, Flanigan was in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. There, he helped Catholic clinics and the local Catholic hospital to increase safety amid the extremely deadly Ebola epidemic. His comments to CNA came before President Donald Trump’s May 22 announcement that he would direct the CDC to issue new guidance for churches to re-open.

The CDC has clearly said that the primary mode of transmission is through the aerosolization of droplets, Flanigan said.

“We know that these droplets occur certainly when people cough, when they sneeze, when they sing, when they talk in a loud voice. There is more projection of these aerosolized droplets,” he explained.

CDC guidance for people in groups is the same whether they are at a large store, a meeting, a workplace or at Mass.

“Their guidance says it is most important that we socially distance, that we’re six feet apart. That’s very important. That we don’t touch each other, because when we touch each other or when we share items,we come in contact with these droplets, and then when we touch our nose, our eyes, or our mouth, that gives the virus the ability to enter into those mucous membranes and cause infections.”

The CDC recommends that anybody with respiratory illness or an active cough should stay home.

“They recommend the use of masks in public spaces, and different states have different guidances,” said Flanigan. Wearing masks is helpful to decrease the spread of respiratory droplets and makes the wearer more aware.

“We generally don’t touch our nose and our mouth in the same way when we are wearing a mask,” he said. Flanigan also noted the importance of good hand hygiene, the use of different hand sanitizers, and guidance on cleaning services for venues.

“That guidance can help us significantly at decreasing the risk of transmission of coronavirus and other viruses associated with respiratory illnesses,” he said.

For Flanigan, the question is: “is the CDC guidance being followed when a group of people get together, for whatever those reasons are?”

“There is no reason to prohibit church services when you don’t prohibit other gatherings,” Flanigan added.

As states and localities gradually lift limits on economic and social life imposed to hinder the spread of the coronavirus, the courts are now considering the question of whether churches are being treated more strictly than similar venues.

A federal judge said the North Carolina governor failed to prove churches were more at risk and temporarily blocked restrictions For his part, Gov. Roy Cooper said different rules were justified because religious services posed greater dangers of spreading the novel coronavirus.


Coronavirus restrictions have tended to enjoy broad public support, though some churches, business owners and workers have protested.

On May 20, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota said they would allow parishes to resume public Masses, and to defy a statewide order prohibiting religious gatherings that exceed 10 people.

“An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason,” they said.

However, the Catholic bishops emphasized the need for parishes to follow strict requirements established by the Church. They must limit attendance to no more than one-third of church capacity, and must follow sanitation protocols. Catholics are still dispensed from their Sunday obligation to attend Mass.

Flanigan said safety precautions are vital for any such effort.

“When bishops do the careful work, as is done in many parts of the country like Minnesota, to recommend that their churches open following the guidance of the CDC, and the state has opened up similar gatherings in similar-type gatherings, then I’d certainly support the bishops in doing this,” he told CNA. “I support them for recommending an opening up, and the most important thing is doing what they are doing: following the CDC guidance.”

Churches have been the focus of concern during the epidemic because of the close proximity of church attendees, socialization before, during and after services, and practices like singing. Some churches have older congregations and so are believed to be more vulnerable to extreme consequences from coronavirus infection.

A May 22 article in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report considered a novel coronavirus outbreak at a rural Arkansas church from March 6-11. The report said that large gatherings pose a risk for Covid-19 transmission. Among the 92 attendees at the Arkansas church, 38% developed a laboratory-confirmed case of infection, and three died. Cases in the community linked to the church numbered 26, including one death.

The article said the case has the implication that faith-based groups “should work with local health officials” to determine how to implement U.S. guidelines for modifying their activities “to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and their communities.”

While not commenting on any specific incident, Flanigan said these incidents of contagion at churches “occurred prior to the use of those guidelines.”

“We know that one very significant outbreak occurred where there was a lot of contact with different church members, very close contact, a lot of physical contact, touching, different materials, passing things around,” he said. “Of course this was prior to our awareness of the spread of coronavirus and prior to an understanding of how important it is that we follow the CDC guidance.”

“The CDC has described outbreaks that have occurred in the setting of singing,” he said. “We know that different activities can cause more aerosolization of droplets, and that has let to very specific recommendations. Unfortunately, choirs are recommended not to practice and not to sing, and not to perform in all areas. Whether it is in Mass or other choral groups or performances, for example.”

He said outbreaks have been related to public gatherings, carnivals, celebrations, conferences, and public worship.

“I think it’s a mistake to say ‘is a conference safer or less safe than a house of worship?’ That’s the wrong question,” Flanigan told CNA. “The CDC gives us that guidance to decrease the rate of transmission. It’s just as important that guidance be followed at a house of worship, as at a conference, as at any other gathering.”

“If somebody makes an arbitrary judgment that a church is not going to follow that guidance, without any evidence, that is biased and there is no evidence for that,” he said.

Flanigan questioned the categories of some governors who classified religious gatherings as “non-essential,” compared to more “essential” activities like grocery stores.

“Being able to come together and pray together, being able to receive the sacraments, to encounter the Lord, right there in the sacraments, is so important,” Flanigan commented.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, just as important as spiritual health,” he said. “We are a whole self, which has a mind, a body, a heart a soul. To be able to pray together, to be able to support each other, to be able to worship together, to be able to receive the Lord in communion, is so important for us to be healthy and to thrive.”

“That is why our churches are essential,” he told CNA. “That is why this whole argument of essential vs. non-essential was a mistake, and not supported by anyone. Some governors just made assumptions that church is non-essential, and that is a grave error. It is an error from the public health point of view, and it is an error from the public health point of view.”

One hallmark of the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, is isolation.

“We are alone in the hospital, we are alone in our nursing homes, we are alone with our fear at two o’clock in the morning. The way we normally get our support is suddenly taken away from us,” he reflected. “That alone-ness is very very difficult. The evil one can attack us, gravely, during these times.”

Coronavirus restrictions have polarized some supporters and critics, and appears to have resulted in violence at times. Across the country, Several store clerks who have asked patrons to wear masks have been assaulted or killed. A Holly Springs, Mississippi Pentecostal church that filed a legal challenge against the city’s stay-at-home order was burned down in an apparent arson, with a note chalked nearby denouncing church members as hypocritical.

Even as some states open up, outbreaks continue. Five of seven Redemptorists at a Houston, Texas community went back into quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus, and after another priest died after possible exposure.

 

Pope Francis entrusts China to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Vatican City, May 24, 2020 / 05:45 am (CNA).- Pope Francis Sunday entrusted China to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and asked people to pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the most populated country in the world.

“Dear Catholic brothers and sisters in China, I wish to assure you that the universal Church, of which you are an integral part, shares your hopes and supports you in trials,” Pope Francis said May 24 after the Regina Caeli prayer.

“It accompanies you with prayer for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that the light and beauty of the Gospel, the power of God for the salvation of whoever believes, can shine in you,” the pope said.

Pope Francis imparted a special Apostolic Blessing upon China for the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians. The Marian shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai, which is dedicated to Our Lady Help of Christians, remains closed on this feast after the Diocese of Shanghai suspended all pilgrimages for the month of May to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We entrust the pastors and faithful of the Catholic Church in that great country to the guidance and protection of our Heavenly Mother, so that they may be strong in faith and firm in fraternal union, joyful witnesses and promoters of charity and fraternal hope, and good citizens,” Pope Francis said.

“May Our Lady always guard you!” he added.

In his Regina Caeli address, the pope reflected on the words of Jesus recorded in Gospel of Matthew for the feast of the Ascension of the Lord: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

China is home to more than 10 million Catholics, with six million registered as members of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, according to official statistics.

The Holy See and the Chinese government signed a provisional agreement in 2018 on the appointment of bishops in the state-sponsored Church, the terms of which have still not been publicly released. In the wake of the deal, previously excommunicated bishops of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is overseen by the Communist Party, were received into full communion with the Vatican.

A report published in 2020 by the U.S. China Commission found that Chinese Catholics suffered “increasing persecution” after the Vatican-China deal. It said the government was “demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.” Priests and bishops have reportedly been detained or have gone into hiding.

Earlier this week, the Vatican revealed that Catholics in China were able to use the most popular Chinese state-monitored social media platform, WeChat, to livestream Pope Francis’ daily Mass during the coronavirus pandemic.

It is unclear whether Catholics in China were also able to watch the livestream of this Sunday Marian prayer for their country on WeChat due to the heavy censorship of all Chinese online media.

 

我们把在中国的弟兄姊妹託付于我们天上的母亲引领及庇佑,愿他们信德坚毅,巩固友爱团结,喜乐地见证并促进爱德与望德。

— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) May 24, 2020  

Pope Benedict XVI established the custom of praying for China on the Marian feast of Our Lady Help of Christians in 2007, and composed a prayer to Our Lady of Sheshan for the occasion.

Pope Francis entrusted to the intercession of Mary Help of Christians all Christian disciples and people of good will who are working for peace, dialogue between nations, service to the poor, and the custody of creation.

The pope also marked the fifth anniversary of publication of his environmental encyclical, Laudato si’. He said that he wrote Laudato si’ to “draw attention to the cry of the Earth and the poor.”

Pope Francis spoke during his Regina Caeli address via livestream video recorded in the library of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. However, for the first time in more than 10 weeks, people were allowed to be present in St. Peter’s Square when the pope appeared in the window to give a blessing.

Each person who entered the square was required to wear a face mask and security enforced social distancing for the people gathered outside of St. Peter’s Basilica, which reopened to the public on May 18.

After more than 5 million people around the world have been documented with COVID-19, the pope asked Our Lady Help of Christians to intercede “for the victory of humanity over every disease of the body, heart, and soul.”

“The feast of Ascension tells us that Jesus, although he ascended into Heaven to dwell gloriously on the right hand of the Father, is still and always among us for us to derive strength, perseverance, and our joy,” Pope Francis said.

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Warning of global hunger crisis, CRS launches campaign to help

CNA Staff, May 23, 2020 / 03:59 pm (CNA).- As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to worsen an already tenuous food situation for millions across the globe, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has announced a campaign to help address global hunger.

“Now is the time for us to lead the way forward to ensure that these communities have the support they need to make it through this crisis and beyond,” said CRS president and CEO Sean Callahan this week.

“If we don’t provide adequate food to children now, it will impact them for the rest of their lives.”

Catholic Relief Services warned that a food crisis already existed in many countries before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, unemployment, lockdowns, heightened food prices, and supply disruptions have made it even more difficult for impoverished families in many areas to get food.

“The shadow pandemic of worsening hunger is playing out in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries,” said Callahan.

The World Food Program has warned that the pandemic could double the number of people facing acute hunger or starvation, which already stands at 135 million.

Pope Francis has highlighted food insecurity in his homilies and addresses. In his comments on the COVID pandemic earlier this month, the pope noted that more than 3.7 million people have died from hunger so far this year. He warned of a “pandemic of hunger” that is not receiving adequate attention.

In response to the global crisis, Catholic Relief Services has launched a “Lead the Way on Hunger” campaign, calling for greater awareness, advocacy and fundraising to address global hunger rates.

The relief agency is encouraging Catholics to educate themselves and become involved in the effort to fight global hunger. It is asking Americans to contact their representatives in support of specific legislation, such as the Global Thrive Act (H.R. 4864), which would integrate early childhood development efforts - including health and nutrition assistance - into already-established foreign aid programs.

The campaign also encourages Catholics to donate to relief efforts when possible as a sign of solidarity with those who are suffering, and to help spread awareness on social media with the hashtag #LeadNow.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has invited the faithful to offer a prayer at noon on May 24 as part of the campaign.

“At this critical time, CRS' ‘Lead the Way on Hunger’ campaign is an important expression of our Church's steadfast commitment to global solidarity, to working for the common good, and to the upholding of human dignity,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a member of the CRS board.

“We believe that each life, no matter how vulnerable, is precious.”

Catholic Relief Services is active in many countries to help alleviate food insecurity. In Guatemala, the agency is helping offer packages of rice, corn, beans and oil for children who are at risk of malnutrition and often receive their only meal of the day through distribution programs at their schools, which are now closed due to the pandemic. In the Philippines, CRS aided a home for people with disabilities to acquire a one-month supply of food and hygiene items.

Catholic Relief Services is also helping with instructions and supplies for hand-washing and sanitization, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Callahan urged Americans to be involved in efforts to alleviate acute hunger for the most vulnerable populations.

“The welfare of the next generation hangs in the balance,” he said.

 

Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopens with restrictions

CNA Staff, May 23, 2020 / 02:04 pm (CNA).- The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is reopening this weekend, after being closed in late March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A statement from the Custodians of the Holy Sepulchre announced that the site would be open to pilgrims beginning May 24.

“For safety reasons and in order to avoid the risk of a new spread of the COVID-19 infection, at the beginning the number will be limited (to 50 persons) and the Basilica will be accessible only to those who have no fever or symptoms of infection and are wearing suitable face coverings,” they said.

“It will also be necessary to keep a minimal distance of 2 meters between each person and to avoid any act of devotion that might include physical contact such as touching and kissing the stones, icons, vestments and the personnel in the Basilica; as well as abide always by the given instructions.”

The church building, which houses the tomb of Christ and the site of the crucifixion, was first closed to pilgrims and other visitors on Wednesday, March 25. Initially, the closure was only expected to last for one week, but religious and Israeli government officials agreed that due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the global pilgrimage destination should remain closed.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is unique among religious sites as it is partially controlled by several different Christian Churches. The Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and Armenian Apostolic Church each share control of the building, and other Orthodox Churches also celebrate divine liturgy at the site.

The last time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed for an extended period due to disease was 1349, during an outbreak of the Black Death in Jerusalem.

The church, which was first consecrated in the year 335, has been closed for short periods of time in the subsequent millennia due to war or other disputes. In 2018, to protest a proposed tax increase on churches, the site was closed to the public for about three days before reopening.

Globally, there have been more than 5 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, with more than 340,000 recorded deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

 

After Minnesota bishops plan to defy Mass restrictions, governor eases rules

CNA Staff, May 23, 2020 / 01:46 pm (CNA).- The governor of Minnesota has issued an order allowing for the resumption of limited public worship gatherings, days after the bishops of the state said they would allow public Masses to resume in defiance of previous guidelines.

The bishops maintained that the original guidelines were unfairly restrictive toward religious services, as businesses and other entities in the state are slowly being allowed to reopen with new safety protocols in place to help guard against the novel coronavirus.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis said he welcomes the new executive order by Governor Tim Walz. In a May 23 letter to the members of the archdiocese, he thanked the governor and his team for their willingness to dialogue and arrive at a solution that respects both safety and freedom of religion.

“As you know, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota believe that the previous limitation on faith-based gatherings to ten people unreasonably burdened the Church’s ability to fully meet the sacramental needs of our faithful,” Hebda said in the letter.

“As allowances were made for other, less essential activities, it seemed to many that the life of faith was receiving unequal treatment,” he continued. “The new executive order removes that unreasonable burden on the Church and allows us to bring the Eucharist, the food of everlasting life, to our community.”

A May 13 executive order began Minnesota’s second stage of statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic. The order, issued by Governor Walz, reopens retail businesses and will gradually reopen restaurants and bars, but limits religious services to 10 people or fewer, with no timeline for loosening religious restrictions.

On May 20, the bishops of Minnesota said they would allow parishes to resume public Masses at one-third of church capacity on May 26, in defiance of the statewide order.

They bishops said the governor’s order was overly broad, to the point of defying reason, since significantly greater numbers of people were permitted to enter stores and shopping malls. They said they believed Masses could be resumed in a way that adhered to health and safety standards.

The bishops said they had attempted to work with state leaders, but had not received a concrete timeline or reasonable roadmap for resuming public Masses. Lutheran churches in the area also announced a plan to reopen without the governor’s permission.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which had worked alongside law firm Sidley Austin to raise the churches’ religious freedom concerns with the governor, said the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod worked with the governor’s office to develop a plan for houses of worship to open safely and responsibly on May 27.

While the Minnesota bishops had initially granted permission for public Masses to resume on May 26, Hebda explained that the additional day will allow parishes to have a chance to reconsider plans based on new protocols, which were developed with the help of public health officials.

These protocols include limiting attendance to 25% of church capacity, or 250 people, whichever is lower, rather than the one-third capacity the bishops had initially proposed.

“Even with these revisions, we hope that parishes already planning to come together on Sunday, May 31, for the celebration of Pentecost and the conclusion of the Easter season, should still be able to do that,” Hebda said.

The archbishop stressed that Governor Walz is trusting faith communities to make responsible decisions as they gather for public worship.

“The bishops of Minnesota have repeatedly told our pastors and parishes that they should only return to public Mass when they are able and willing to follow the many protocols that have been put in place – including sanitization and a few changes to the liturgy, particularly regarding the reception of Holy Communion [in the hand],” he said. “If a parish is not confident they are ready, they should not open. Period.”

Other changes to the liturgy will include a suspension of the Sign of Peace and the use of hand sanitizer by Eucharistic ministers before the distribution of communion.

Hebda recognized the sacrifice of the faithful in the archdiocese who have been unable to receive the Eucharist in recent weeks, while reiterating that the dispensation from the Sunday obligation to attend Mass remains in place, and those who are sick, vulnerable, or uncomfortable attending Mass at this time should remain at home.

He also thanked the priests who have ministered to their people and to the sick, recognizing the risk associated with doing so. He called the faithful to pray for the sick and dying, the first responders and health care workers treating them, and for an end to the pandemic.

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said Minnesota should be a model for other states that have closed houses of worship.

“Governor Walz is to be commended for seeing the light,” he said. “Minnesota is setting an example by recognizing the importance of giving equal treatment to churches and other houses of worship, and that worship services can be conducted safely, cooperatively, and responsibly.”

 

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