Amid coronavirus fears, Archbishop Smith calls for preventive measures wherever Mass is celebrated

12 March 2020

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Edmonton Catholics will see tighter protections against the spread of the coronavirus in church and during Mass amid heightened anxiety over the rising number of Alberta cases and the declaration of the respiratory illness outbreak as a worldwide pandemic.

Effective immediately, handshaking during the Sign of Peace will be replaced with a bow, nod, or “Peace be with you,” holy water fonts will stay empty, and consecrated wine will not be distributed from the chalice as part of Holy Communion.

Catholics will still be free to receive Communion on the hand or the tongue. Public health experts have advised the Archdiocese that there is no greater risk of infection on the tongue.

The temporary changes were announced in a March 11 memo to church pastors from Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith. Before then, some parishes had already implemented stricter rules.

Mary Help of Christians, the designated Chinese parish in the Archdiocese, had removed the entire holy water fonts from the church and stopped distributing consecrated wine during Mass a few weeks ago. Plastic bags now 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.

Holy water fonts will stay empty under new measures to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The Archdiocese memo goes on to urge Catholics to practise healthy hygiene by washing hands with soap or using hand sanitizer regularly, staying home from Mass if they are sick, covering their nose and mouth if they have to sneeze or cough, and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

As of March 12, there were 23 cases in Alberta and 107 cases nationwide. There has been one death: a man in his 80s who was living at a North Vancouver seniors’ home.

COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, can cause symptoms ranging from those of 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.

The Alberta government is asking organizers to cancel any events that have more than 250 attendees. This includes large sporting events, conferences and community events. It does not extend to places of worship, grocery stores, airports or shopping centres.

Also, any event with more than 50 attendees, or with an expectation of international participants, should also be cancelled.

“The risk of exposure to the virus is currently low in Alberta,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer told reporters at a news conference. “That is a good thing, but it may change in coming weeks. If it changes, we will alert you. And we will continue doing everything possible to protect the health and well-being of everyone in our province.

“The health of Albertans is, and always will be, our top priority.”

Five of the Alberta cases were identified in the last two days, including one man in the Edmonton who  had a procedure unrelated to COVID-19 at the Misericordia Hospital on March 6 and 7. He tested positive for COVID-19 on March 9 and is now self-isolating.

Hinshaw said there is no risk to patients or staff at the hospital at this time.

“I want to be clear that there is no need for anyone else who may have attended the Misericordia or other hospital sites to be concerned or take additional action. Anyone considered to be at risk is being directly contacted by AHS,” she said.

“All necessary precautions will be taken to support their health. If you are not contacted by AHS, you are not at risk at this time. We are sharing this information as we are committed to being transparent with Albertans, and informing them of key developments as they unfold.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer, says the risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus is low.

The other four other new cases are situated in the Calgary area and in central Alberta. All the patients are now recovering in isolation at home. More information is available on the Alberta government’s COVID-19 information page.

Those will symptoms are asked to call Health Link at 811 for assessment and testing.

On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared a COVID-19 coronavirus a pandemic. There are more than 118,000 cases worldwide and 4,000 deaths.

The U.S. announced a temporary ban on flights from Europe, effective March 13. And COVID-19 has forced some countries to take drastic measures, including Italy which is on a national lockdown. The virus caused 200 deaths on March 11 alone.

“Based on this evolving information, Alberta is now asking all travellers returning from Italy to self-isolate for 14 days have passed since their last visit,” Hinshaw said.

Hinshaw that all travelers returning to Alberta from anywhere outside Canada should limit attendance at large public gatherings, and monitor themselves for any symptoms such as fever or cough.

Fear of the COVID-19 virus has also had an impact outside churches.

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. There are no plans currently to close schools. More information can be found on the ECSD website.

The actions taken in the Edmonton Archdiocese follow similar measures in Catholic dioceses across Canada including Calgary and Toronto.

The Diocese of Thunder Bay, Ont., was the first Canadian diocese to implement Mass restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19, sending out an advisory on March 2.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver followed March 5 by issuing a similar set of instructions. Many parishes began cancelling events in their churches, including Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes, though Masses are continuing.

-With files from Canadian Catholic News