Archpriest James Baglien of Saint Martin of Tours Church in Corvallis, OR, offered the following advice to his parishioners. We include it here for our readers’ reference and application:
There is much concern about the expanding coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic. These concerns raise questions about what practical measures we should put in place for our Church life. Many will have noted that we used disposable cups for zapivka after Communion on Sunday. This will be standard for our entire Diocese for the duration of the outbreak.
Part of the difficulty are the many unknowns about this new virus. The science is not yet fully understood, and this creates much uncertainty. However, there are some things that we can say definitively:
1) Is a respiratory virus. Mild to moderate cases resemble cold and flu symptoms, though usually with a drier cough: cough, sore throat, fever, and shortness of breath. In severe cases, the lungs are attacked, which can lead to death. In this, it resembles influenza, which kills between 15,000 and 30,000 Americans in a typical flu season.
2) Is highly contagious, chiefly through hand contact with infected surfaces following by facial touching, and secondarily by inhalation of droplets from coughing and sneezing. Skin to skin contact is not considered a risk factor (aside from hand to face contact), nor is ingestion though food. The virus can live on surfaces for up to 12 hours.
3) It is considerably more serious than the usual seasonal influenza. South Korea, which leads the world in wide-scale testing of its population, is reporting a fatality rate of 0.68%, which is several times higher than influenza. Other fatality estimates are much higher, but these are usually based only on tested cases. (This is significant; in this country, only about 6,500 people have been tested so far, while South Korea is testing 10,000 people a day.)
4) Most cases of illness will be mild to moderate. Severe cases can affect any age group, but are concentrated in elderly individuals, especially those with underlying health conditions. In Italy, which has had the most severe outbreak in Europe, 89% of fatalities have been of individuals over age 70, most with the underlying health conditions common to this age group. However, younger people should not be complacent, as young, healthy individuals have also died from the virus; moreover, you do not wish to become a disease vector that spreads the virus to older family members and parishioners.
How can we reduce our risk of infection with the Coronavirus?
The recommendations from the Oregon Health Authority are the same as for any respiratory illness:
Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue and then throw the tissue in the trash.
Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
Clean and disinfect surfaces that are often touched.
Take care of your health overall. Staying current on your vaccinations, including flu vaccine, eating well and exercising all help your body stay resilient.
These are all good, but let me focus on some key practices, and further elaborate:
1) Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands. “Washed” means 20 seconds of lathering up with soap, thoroughly treating all skin surfaces. Dry with a clean towel. Wash your hands as soon as you come home from work, school, the grocery store, etc. Remember, contact surfaces that people have touched with unwashed hands are probably the greatest threat. If you’re out and about, and need to adjust your contact lenses or scratch your nose — use hand sanitizer first.
2) Don’t forget to regularly sanitize your cell phone! If makes no sense at all to thoroughly wash your hands — and then pick up the cell phone you were just using before you washed your hands. Hand sanitizer works well for this.
3) Avoid unnecessary contact with crowds, at sporting and cultural events, dances, bars, and clubs. Avoid elective travel by mass transportation — airplanes, buses, etc. If your child participates in sports involving close contact, consider taking a break from these during the next several months.
A growing list of universities have switched to online instruction for undergraduates, for the balance of winter term and all of spring term: Harvard, Stanford, the U. of Washington, Vanderbilt, UC-Berkeley, Syracuse, Rutgers, Indiana, Amherst, Columbia, Ohio State, San Jose State — the list is long, and rapidly growing. Oregon State and the U. of Oregon have not yet taken this step, but neither have they yet had a confirmed case of COVID-19 in their communities.
Now, what does this mean for us, in Church life?
We want Church life to continue as normally as possible, and with as little risk to our parishioners as possible. After much thought and prayer, my directions are as follows:
1) If you or your children have respiratory symptoms — coughing, sneezing, fever, a sore throat, or runny nose — stay home from Church, and say your prayers at home. There is nothing “heroic” about coming to Church when you have a communicable sickness. Out of love for your brothers and sisters, please refrain from exposing them to a potentially dangerous illness. Currently, in Corvallis, such symptoms are not likely to be COVID-19, but as time passes, the likelihood will grow that they will be.
If you become seriously ill, I shall visit you to administer Holy Communion.
2) Those who clean the church, restrooms, and hall — take care to clean all the door handles, table surfaces, etc. It is not necessary to use an alcohol-based sanitizer for this — a regular surface cleaning product is adequate.
1) Should I venerate icons, take the priest’s blessing, etc?
This is a bit of a gray area. We don’t (at least, adults don’t) leave saliva on these surfaces, but rather, “dry kiss.” Ingestion is not a major risk factor. If people with active illnesses stay home as they should, this risk should be limited. However, I shall not scold those who are worried enough about this to refrain from such veneration.
2) What about Holy Communion?
This is truly the lowest risk of anything we do in Church.
Why? Our Orthodox practice of Communion involves the priest dipping the spoon into the Blood of Christ between each administration. What could be more purifying than that? I might also mention that the physical element transformed into the Blood of Christ is 20% ethanol — but that is quite beside the point.
If your faith still wavers, consider what happens with the Chalice following the service. The priest (or deacon, if one is serving) consumes the contents of the Chalice in the Altar. At a large church or cathedral, hundreds of people may have been communed from that chalice — many with undiagnosed illnesses, including not only respiratory illnesses, but stomach viruses, etc. An unbelieving person would expect that the priests and deacons who consume the Gifts would be more often ill due to such exposure. But in practice, we observe that priests and deacons seem to experience fewer communicable illnesses than average — because they are, through their service each week, receiving the Source of Life. (Others, who have taken my Adult Class, may recall my personal anecdote about a life-threatening abdominal infection vanishing — to the perplexed irritation of the surgeon — after my reception of the Reserved Gifts.)
So let your minds be at ease in this respect.
The children of the Church have passed through many periods of pestilence in Her long history, and found solace and comfort in Her grace. Let us remain fervent in prayer, do those things which are prudent, and leave the rest in the hands of God.
With love in Christ,
PS: My thanks to internist Panteleimon (Dr Brian) Curtis, who has reviewed the above information — and concurs.