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Infectious disease expert supports federal guidelines on reopening churches

Courtesy of Dr. Timothy Flanigan
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Is a house of worship safe in the time of pandemic? It’s likely to be, if it follows CDC protocols, says Dr. Timothy Flanigan.

The decision of some U.S. governors to regard church services as “non-essential” during the coronavirus pandemic was a mistake, says a prominent physician. But he expressed strong support for guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued so that houses of worship can safely welcome their flocks back.

Dr. Timothy Flanigan, a professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University who served in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic in 2014, made his comments during an interview with Catholic News Agency. He said that if anyone has reservations about going to church as houses of worship begin to open again, the answer is based in large part on whether the church is following CDC guidelines. The federal agency has a special section on its website devoted to “Community and Faith-Based Organizations.”

“CDC offers the following general considerations to help communities of faith discern how best to practice their beliefs while keeping their staff and congregations safe,” the agency says in an introduction. “Millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life. For many faith traditions, gathering together for worship is at the heart of what it means to be a community of faith. But as Americans are now aware, gatherings present a risk for increasing spread of COVID-19 during this Public Health Emergency. CDC offers these suggestions for faith communities to consider and accept, reject, or modify, consistent with their own faith traditions, in the course of preparing to reconvene for in-person gatherings while still working to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

A number of Catholic dioceses have been issuing their own plans and guidelines for reopening parishes. Some have relied on guidelines developed by the Thomistic Institute at the Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Flanigan, who is also a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, assisted in developing those guidelines.

“The question is: can I follow the CDC guidance just as carefully, in each setting, in order to decrease transmission of coronavirus?” Flanigan said in the CNA interview, which was conducted May 21. “Can I maintain safe distancing? Can I maintain good hand hygiene? Can I ensure that I am not ill?”

Just as important, in Flanigan’s view, is the mental and spiritual health that churches naturally support.

“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,” he told the news service. “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,…”

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.”

The entire interview can  be read here.

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