Catholics in Edmonton are being advised to take precautions to protect against COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, with just weeks before Easter and a growing concern among the faithful about infection.
This comes as the Alberta government reported its first two presumptive cases in the province. Further testing is being done to confirm.
The first is a Calgary woman in her 50s. She is presumed to have contracted the virus while on the Grand Princess cruise ship held off the coast of California after a passenger died on a previous voyage and others become infected with the COVID-19 virus.
She returned home on Feb. 21 and has been isolated at home since Feb. 28. She is expected to make a full recovery. The Alberta government said public health officials are reaching out to anyone who may have come into contact with that person, and asking them to self-isolate for 14 days.
The second presumptive case, announced March 6, is a man in his 40s who lives in the Edmonton area. His case is related to travel in the U.S. and he is recovering in isolation at home with support from public health officials.
“While some may be concerned, I remind Albertans that the risk is still low in our province. We are already taking the necessary precautions to prevent the infection from spreading,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, told reporters.
Hinshaw said other Albertans were on the cruise ship in California, and the province is working with the federal government to confirm passenger lists.
As a precaution, the Edmonton Catholic School Division cancelled a planned spring break trip to Italy and Spain for 51 high school students from Austin O’Brien and St. Oscar Romero schools.
In the Archdiocese of Edmonton, there are no plans at this time to alter liturgical practices in churches such as shaking hands or receiving Communion on the tongue or hand during Mass.
“We have to be prudent. We will act only when we receive an indication from the medical officer that we need to take measures,” said Rev. Adam Lech, moderator of the Curia, and the lead person on coronavirus protection for the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
“Our reaction would be to assess the situation carefully and then decide what actions to take.”
To date, 375 COVID-19 tests have been completed. Across Canada, there are 50 confirmed cases.
Coronaviruses can cause respiratory illness in people, ranging from mild common colds to severe illnesses. Alberta public health officials say it appears the virus is transmitted by larger droplets, like from a cough or sneeze.
It’s also possible for people to be exposed to the virus from contaminated objects or surfaces and, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. Many patients have reported only mild symptoms. There is person-to-person spread.
Father Lech said his office has fielded calls from concerned Catholics asking about COVID-19 protection.
In a memo to pastors, the Archdiocese did recommend parishes to take certain precautions.
The Archdiocese advised parishes to have hand cleaning stations near the entrance to the church, and to ensure that Eucharistic ministers disinfect their hands before distribution of Communion.
In some countries, large gatherings have been banned and dioceses have closed churches or imposed restrictions on liturgical practices such as hand shaking during the Sign of Peace or emptying communal holy water fonts. The Edmonton Archdiocese has no plans for such restrictions at this time.
However, if parishioners feel vulnerable to infection because of an underlying condition or for any other reason, they are invited to use another gesture besides hand shaking during the Sign of Peace, such as bowing with a hand over the heart. They are also asked to use hand sanitizer before and after Mass.
The Church does advise the ill to stay home from Mass, especially if symptoms include fever and cough. A televised Sunday Mass is available from Toronto at https://dailytvmass.com/daily-tv-mass/
The Archdiocese memo comes just weeks before Easter when hundreds of Catholics will gather for Mass on the April 11-12. They will be among the largest gatherings of Catholics during the entire year.
“It’s important to stay home if you are sick and remind others to do the same until they no longer have symptoms,” Hinshaw said. “You should also be practising frequent hand washing and making sure you’re covering your coughs and sneezes. Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, such as kitchen counters, children’s toys and door knobs, can also help limit your risk.”
While it’s important to have three days’ worth of food, water and medicine on hand, Hinshaw cautioned against what she called “panic buying” of groceries and supplies.
“Instead, I encourage you to plan ahead by examining your routines and what might need to change in the event COVID-19 arrives and you or a family member may need to self-isolate,” Hinshaw said.
“For example, is there a friend or family member who would be available to help out with grocery shopping and other important errands? Do your grocery store and pharmacy offer delivery services? Are your prescriptions up to date? By having these conversations with your family, friends and neighbours, we can all be better prepared and ready to help those in need, without having to empty the shelves at Costco.”
More information is available on the Alberta government’s COVID-19 information page.
Public health officials say the disease caused by this strain of COVID-19 does not appear to be as severe as other coronaviruses, such as the SARS outbreak in 2002-2004.
Nevertheless, COVID-19 has infected an estimated 95,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,000 people. It was first identified in Wuhan, China on Dec. 31, 2019. Since then the World Health Organization has declared the virus a public health emergency.
At Mary Help of Christians, the Chinese parish in Edmonton, the parish council has already gone further than the precautions recommended by the Archdiocese.
The parish has removed all the holy water fonts from the church. Consecrated wine is not distributed during Mass. And plastic bags cover the microphones at the lecterns. Those covers are changed each day. The parish council took those extra measures, with cues from the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong.
“We made a decision that we’ll ask people to try to do things to protect against the coronavirus,” said Rev. Dominic Qin, the pastor of Mary Help of Christians parish. “We tell people ‘Don’t be worried’. We trust in God first, and we try to do our part to ourselves and also to protect other people.”
Qin said most parishioners understand the precautions, although a few are upset. Additionally, the congregation recites a special prayer after each Mass for the people of Wuhan, China.
Three families in the parish are also taking extra precautions by self-isolating to protect others.
Bing Wong and his wife Georgiana have been avoiding large crowds for the past two weeks after their monthlong cruise to Singapore and Malaysia was cut short even before it started. Singapore is one of the countries flagged as a COVID-19 precaution.
The Wongs were on the ship in Sydney, Australia when they were abruptly told the cruise was cancelled for their own safety, although coronavirus was not mentioned specifically.
The cruise line, Princess, hosted one of the largest outbreaks of the new coronavirus outside China.
Since they’ve returned to Edmonton, the Wongs have been limiting their time outside their home. They haven’t seen their son and his family, including their two grandchildren. They have also stayed away from Mass, and from the church itself in an effort to avoid large groups of people. Normally Bing Wong is at the church as part of a volunteer maintenance crew.
The Wongs say they are healthy and have no coronavirus or flu symptoms. They haven’t gone so far as wearing a surgical mask. And they do go shopping for essentials, but choose a time that isn’t busy.
“I feel very good except I can’t do my own things that I normally do,” Bing said, noting he’s temporarily stopped going to the Terwillegar Recreation Centre for his daily swim.
This Sunday they will attend Mass and see their family for the first time in two weeks.
Father Lech stressed the Archdiocese of Edmonton is taking a measured response to COVID-19. He has been keeping in touch with the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Heath for Alberta in case there are any recommendations for church communities.
The Alberta government is now advising all travellers returning from Iran or Hubei province, China, to self-isolate until 14 days have passed since their visit. Travellers returning from mainland China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea or Italy are asked to monitor themselves for symptoms over two weeks.
Travellers leaving Canada are asked to consult with Public Health Agency of Canada or World Health Organization websites for information.