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Churches prepare for coronavirus as Ash Wednesday crowds gather

Ash Wednesday
Scott Olson | Getty Images | AFP
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Dioceses have already put policies in place for flu season.

Not if, but when.

That’s the message from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the probability that America will experience an outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

As Catholics and Christians of other denominations prepared to gather for Ash Wednesday services, dioceses around the country were monitoring the situation and reminding parishioners of precautionary measures, many of them already in place because of the current flu season.

Each year, the Archdiocese of New York sends a reminder to all priests during flu season on common-sense precautions, for them to share with parishioners as needed, said Joseph Zwilling, Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of New York. “Included are reminders that those who are not feeling well should not serve as Eucharistic Ministers, that clergy and ministers should wash their hands before and after Mass, that anti-bacterial gel be available, that it is not necessary to shake hands at the Sign of Peace (a greeting or wave can suffice), and not to receive the Precious Blood if not feeling well.”

Zwilling said that in this year’s note to pastors, the archdiocese “made sure to mention the coronavirus as a reason to be extra cautious this year.”

“The situation is being monitored to see if additional steps may be warranted,” Zwilling said Monday.

Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said that public health officials don’t know if the spread of the disease to the U.S. would be mild or severe, but that Americans should be ready for a significant disruption to their daily lives, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

“We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” Dr. Messonnier said.

The World Health Organization also warned that the world is unprepared for a leap in infections, which could overwhelm medical resources in many countries.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, plans to visit and distribute ashes at St. Agatha’s, a parish in Brooklyn with a significant population of Chinese. COVID-19 originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

“The Bishop has chosen this parish as a sign of solidarity with the Asian Catholic community,” said a spokesman for the diocese, John Quaglione. The bishop will celebrate the 10:00 a.m. Chinese Mass February 26 “to pray for and with all Chinese parishioners in Brooklyn,” according to a note in the parish bulletin.

“At a time of great concern over the coronavirus, I thought it would be good to support our Chinese community and to offer prayer and solidarity as we begin the Holy Season of Lent,” Bishop DiMarzio said in a statement.

Quaglione said Monday that the diocese has suspended the distribution of the blood of Christ at Masses and are encouraging people not to attend Mass when they are ill.  However, “this is something that we have done in the past and was started this winter because of the flu, not the coronavirus,” he said. “However, it remains in place.”

Maria Margiotta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, said the archdiocese has not issued an advisory to pastors to alter practices during Mass. “Some pastors may opt to suspend handshaking during the Sign of Peace or sharing the chalice of Precious Blood during flu season in their own parish,” Margiotta said. “Parishioners are encouraged to use their judgment. They may opt to offer the Sign of Peace verbally or with a hand wave, for example, or may choose not to drink from the chalice.”

Tracey B. Kincaid, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Orange, California, said the diocese is “carefully watching developments and will adjust as necessary as circumstances warrant.”

“During any cold or flu season — and this includes the coronavirus — the Diocese of Orange has given pastors the option of discontinuing distribution of Holy Communion under both species as well as eliminating the Sign of Peace,” Kincaid said. “Additionally, we have encouraged pastors to communicate to parishioners that if they are sick or caring for someone who is sick, the obligation to attend Mass is dispensed.”

Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Diocese of San Diego, said in an interview that the diocese is continuing to monitor the situation and to be in touch with local public health officials.

“We have our normal flu protocols in place right now,” Eckery said. “Most parishes now don’t do Communion by wine, and even before we said anything, people were bowing and nodding during the Sign of Peace. There’s been an awful lot of self-regulation in terms of touching.”

In the Archdiocese of Chicago, spokeswoman Susan Thomas said that parishioners should exercise caution, but that there are no plans at this point to make provisions for the suspension of the Sign of Peace or Holy Communion from the Chalice.

We strongly encourage pastors and all liturgical ministers to be sure to practice good hygiene before Mass, making sure to wash their hands, either with soap and water or with a hand sanitizer, in preparation for ministering Holy Communion,” Thomas said Monday.

While the Archdiocese is not yet recommending the suspension of receiving from the chalice, that might change if the danger of COVID-19 increases in the Chicago area, she said.

Thomas did not know of anyone affiliated with Chicago Catholic schools who has contracted the virus. “We are aware that many schools have questions and concerns regarding the coronavirus,” Thomas said. “While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is closely monitoring the outbreak, we are also doing our part to best support the health and well-being of our schools, students and staff by taking preventative steps. We have shared what the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control provided for guidance about the coronavirus.”

At the end of January, when more and more cases of coronavirus were being reported every day in China, the superintendent of schools of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia required any students returning from China to remain home for 14 days following their re-entry to the United States.

“During the 14-day in-home period, they will be provided with assignments and academic support,” said Sr. Maureen L. McDermott, IHM, superintendant. “Any student exhibiting signs of ill health during the 14-day in home period is required to seek immediate medical attention. Students are advised not to travel to China for the remainder of the school year. … All parents living in China are requested not to visit their children in the United States for the remainder of the school year. International students should wait until the end of the school year to return to their native country, and arrive at least 14 days prior to the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.”

There are 126 Chinese students in 16 high schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and an additional 80 students from various other countries, said spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin.

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