Dear Pastors, Administrators, and other church leaders;
This message provides a public health update with recommendation and directions regarding the current prevalence of infectious diseases.
Influenza (flu): The influenza season began somewhat early this year and, fortunately, the number of cases is dropping in Arizona, New Mexico and nation-wide. The season has been relatively “mild,” but 124 deaths have been attributed to the disease, or its complications, in Arizona and New Mexico so far this season. As usual, children and elders are particularly susceptible. Precautions are still strongly urged. Vaccination is a primary means of prevention.
Coronavirus (COVID-19): This virulent strain of virus which first appeared in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China has claimed several thousand lives as it has spread to many other countries. The United States of America has reported cases in 38 states. Many of the cases were due to exposure outside of this country but there have been several outbreaks of community-acquired disease from inside the country. This disease is not easily controlled due to its highly contagious nature and propensity to spread from infected person who do not yet manifest the full effects of the virus. The high mobility of the people in our country is a significant factor in the difficulty of controlling such diseases. The Diocese of Gallup does not have large population centers, but Interstate 40 is a very busy transportation artery that passes through the middle and brings the opportunity of spread of a disease like COVID-19. The more rural areas are less at risk except the need to go to the larger cities of food and supplies.
The reason for increased alarm for this disease is that it is more lethal than those more common contagions like influenza. Up to 50% of infected persons have severe illness and up to 3% die. That rate of death is more than 10 times the lethality of influenza compared to the most recent strains. That is a serious disease. There are no special treatments or vaccines and they probably will not exist for another 10-12 months. Supportive care is the only management and that often means intensive care. In the scenario of a widespread infection it is conceivable that our medical assets could be overwhelmed. Another unknow element in this disease is whether it will manifest a “seasonal” component as we experience with influenza. The difference is that a partial immunity exists to influenza due to prior infections and vaccinations. The population has no such protection with this new disease.
New Mexico, to date, has reported three cases which were all contracted outside the state. Arizona has had 9 cases, of which 7 may be from community spread. Both states have declared this threat as a health emergency status. The Governor of New Mexico has instructed that large meetings should be cancelled but schools remain open. Currently there is no mandate to cancel church meetings but caution is advised. Nearby states of Colorado and Texas are more involved. Prevention is primarily a matter of thwarting the spread of the disease. When an outbreak occurs in a location, health officials may find it necessary to quarantine that location to include entire cities or regions as we have already seen in China and Italy. There may need to be restrictions on travel and public gatherings to include church services. Individuals at higher risk may need to take more precautions than the general public such as avoiding contact outside the home. This would include very young children, elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
Bishop James Seán Wall made the following directives effective immediately for the Diocese of Gallup. These are temporary but prudent based on the information available out of concern and respect for the safety of all. Changes will be required as the situation develops.
- Communion will be distributed only under the species of the Sacred Host.
- Sign of Peace will be suspended – the priest or deacon NOT say “Let us offer to one another the sign of peace.
- No holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer
- No shaking hands or hugging before, during or after Mass or meetings
- Holy Water removed from the hand fonts
- Remove all books, missals and loose objects from the pews.
- Clergy should assure the faithful that they are not obliged to attend Mass if they are sick and that staying home can be an act of charity towards their fellow parishioners, even lifesaving.
- Gifts of bread and wine will be kept covered on the credence table – no offertory procession with those gifts.
- For the offering of the collection methods should be used that require the least number of hands to touch the collection baskets
- Clergy will be extra vigilant that all sacred vessels are well-cleaned after use and that only persons with washed hands handle these vessels, to include the altar servers
- Procedures must be in place for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to sanitize their hands before and after distribution of Holy Communion.
- Clergy will exercise extra discipline to wash hands immediately prior to starting to celebrate the Mass. A mechanism must be available to re-cleanse hands if they become contaminated prior to distribution of communion.
- Members of the faithful who are elderly (over 65 years of age) and those that have medical conditions that make them more prone to infection are dispensed from the Sunday obligation to attend Mass. Very young children (less than 3 years old) are not recommended to attend Mass for their protection and the faithful who must remain home to care for them are also dispensed if they have no alternative care for the children. These dispensations will continue until such time as the course and risk of the COVID-19 disease can be better discerned.
- Clergy should clearly explain to the faithful the mandated precautions and take the opportunity to reinforce instruction in the proper manner of receiving Holy Communion to avoid accidental contamination which puts many at risk
- Celebration of the Mass with the faithful assembled will continue with the required precautions in place
- No extraordinary meetings or gatherings of more than 100 persons are allowed on church property in New Mexico due to orders from the New Mexico Department of Health
- Recommend receiving communion in the hand but not mandatory
- Hand sanitizer dispensers available at the doors of the church
- Include an intercessory prayer at every Mass for protection from disease and recovery for those affected.
- Prayers for intercessions by saints affected by various plagues to include St Kateri, St. Barbara, St. Rocco, and St. Catherine of Alexandria.
- Clergy should suggest spiritual alternatives for those who cannot attend Mass. These might include:
- Hearing the readings proclaimed and the Gospel preached by watching televised versions of the Mass for the benefit of spiritual communion. These are available from many sources-
- Televised versions of the Mass available at various sites
- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjIQbBgE-iIeC32miGfbmdw (Cathedral, Gallup)
- https://www.youtube.com/user/PhoenixDiocese/about (Phoenix)
- Relevant Radio (audio)
- Some examples of spiritual communion can be found here:
- It is also good to recommend to those who are homebound the regular reading of Scripture and the praying of the Rosary. Reading the Passion Narratives (Mt. 26-27; Mk. 14-15; Lk. 22-23; Jn. 18-19) and praying the Sorrowful Mysteries would be appropriate now, both as it is Lent and since we can more readily unite our own sufferings to Christ when we meditate upon Him in His Agony and Passion.
- Family rosary recited by those confined to home
- Prayers specifically for those suffering from the coronavirus and its effects, one could pray Psalm 91, which invokes the Lord specifically against plagues.
- Acts of Faith, Hope, and Love can also be helpful to drive out the fear that is rampant at this time. These also help us all to rely on the Lord more, which is always and everywhere the best solution to any problem.
Preparation in advance can avoid problems. Anticipating periods of restricted travel and staying safely at home may require people and families to procures supplies of food and medication in advance so they do not have leave the safety of a non-infected home. A person or family who contracts the disease but, hospitalization is not required, will need to remain on home isolation to avoid infecting other people. Extra food and provisions on hand in the home will reduce the need for outside assistance and interaction with other people.
Adopting good public health hygiene practices can help stem the spread of influenza, coronavirus and many other contagious diseases. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) advises the usual standard precautions:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
- If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick, especially if a person has any condition that makes them more susceptible to infections.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
Prudent responses to these threats in the church environment could include:
- Communion distributed only in the form of the Sacred Host
- Limiting person to person touching by discouraging handshaking and hugs
- Not holding hands during the Our Father
- Advising a “no-touch” greeting for the Sign of Peace during Mass (or temporarily suspending that option in the rite so no one feels awkward about declining handshakes or hugs from those so inclined in spite of advice to the contrary).
- Changing and cleaning Holy Water fonts often
- Extra cleaning of water fountains
- Placing hand sanitizer stations at convenient sites for clergy, staff, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, ushers and faithful attending Mass
- Reinforcing the recommendation to stay home from Mass and church events when one is sick or coughing/sneezing
- Clergy and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion should wash their hands prior to distribution of Holy Communion, and as soon after as feasible. An anti-bacterial gel or hand wipes are acceptable options.
- Increase housekeeping efforts to frequently clean surfaces that are often touched by people: doorknobs, door handles, banisters, and handrails
- Counters for the collection need to wash their hands after their duties (protective gloves might be considered)
- Encouraging the faithful to exercise the above practices advocated by the CDC.
- When visiting the sick in medical facilities, follow the protection guidelines posted by the nursing staff
- The issue of choice of receipt of communion (Sacred Host) either on the tongue or in the hand is controversial. There are no controlled scientific studies for guidance. That said, the principal source of the infectious agents is the nose and mouth. The hands are secondary sources of infectious agents due to the human propensity to touch the face, nose and mouth with the hands. Proper technique in administering communion either to tongue or hand can avoid direct contamination but it takes a cooperative action between the communicant and the person distributing. Improper or unexpected actions by either party could cause contact and contamination. One suggested response is providing additional catechesis for the faithful in proper receipt of communion and also to assure that all persons distributing communion are properly trained and have the dexterity to carry out the task properly.
- Clergy should pay extra attention to hand washing immediately prior to stating the celebration of Mass. The hands should be cleansed again if they become contaminated by touching the face, blowing the nose, or coughing in the hands before the consecration and distribution of communion. That will require a source of cleansing agent located in the sanctuary for ready access.
- The sacred vessels used for communion should be properly cleaned after each use and only handled by clean hands.
- The altar servers need to exercise the same hand hygiene as the clergy since they bring the vessels to the altar in their hands.
- Encourage families to do advance emergency planning – suggested resource: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/get-your-household-ready-for-COVID19.html
- Do initial planning for alternatives to accomplish required tasks at the church with fewer staff or less interaction between persons which may be necessary if the threat becomes more severe.
- Some advance planning is appropriate to take food and medical supplies to persons who are on home isolation. This would be a great act of charity that healthy church members could provide but advance coordination is key to such efforts to include proper protection of such volunteers with equipment and training. Local health authorities and civil authorities should be involved in planning such efforts.
It is recommended that the pastors/administrators observe the general health of the people in their community and react appropriately. Attention to the health news for the region or State is a wise practice. However, a disease can be much more active in one location than another. Local community medical providers may be able to assist in determining the prevalence of disease in an area. Health authorities or elected officials may give firm directives to include restricted activity. Official instructions should be followed as part of our community effort to combat the spread of disease. The following websites will have authoritative information:
Please implement the applicable directives and disseminate this information as appropriate. Stay vigilant for further information and instruction. This document will be posted in a special location on the Website for the Diocese of Gallup for future reference and updates will be added when available.
Respectfully in Christ,
Dcn Randolph Copeland