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Coronavirus and the Mass: Following the science

By Deacon Rob Lanciotti

Deacon Rob Lanciotti is a permanent deacon at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Collins and holds a doctoral degree in Microbiology. He was employed as a virologist for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) for 29 years.

Back in June as we began returning to Mass, I wrote from my perspective as a virologist with experience in public health that attending Mass for most people was a relatively low risk event. 

The past several months have convinced me that this is still the case. Mass attendance under the guidelines that we are following in the Archdiocese of Denver is reasonably safe, and at this point most of us should be participating in the weekly liturgy. Here I would like to reiterate a few previously stated points in support of this, with the addition of new and valuable data.

It is unfortunate that most news organizations are emphasizing case numbers and other rare outcomes of the disease.  We may read about the 10-year-old who died of COVID-19, yet the story fails to place this rare event into perspective.  For example, there have been 72 deaths due to COVID-19 among the 0-14 age category (of over 200,000 total fatalities), whereas we typically have 700 deaths due to drowning per year in this same age cohort.  COVID fatalities are not even within the top 20 causes of death for this age group.  Media emphasis on these rare outcomes has led to a generalized fear that is unfounded for most of the US population.  The facts are clear; the disease is of low incidence overall and severe outcomes and fatalities are occurring among an identifiable sub-set of the population – a subgroup that can be protected.  Overall, the public health response and the media focus has been disproportionate to the threat.  Catholics should focus on the facts and not be manipulated by the press.

The overall rate of infection among the entire population has been determined by randomized testing in 10 separate cities throughout the US.  New York City is clearly the exception, with an infection rate of around 20%.  All other sites are at 5% or less.  For comparison the 1918 flu pandemic caused infections in well over 30% of the population.  

Secondly, as has been observed from the outset of the pandemic, there is a clear age and health relationship between COVID-19 infection and serious outcomes.  Coronavirus infection is significantly less serious than annual flu for those in the 0-24 age category, about the same as annual flu for the 25-45 category, more serious than flu for those in the 45-64, and significantly more serious in those over 65; especially with pre-existing health conditions.

With these facts in mind, it is clear that most people are at low risk of serious outcome and thus should feel safe returning to Mass; especially with the precautions in place at the Sunday liturgy.  

Moving forward, there are two principles of Catholic social teaching that I would like to reflect upon that can be applied in dealing with response to the pandemic; subsidiarity and the common good.  The principle of subsidiarity teaches us that those closest to the situation under consideration are best suited to make correct decisions.  Applied to this current scenario this means that individuals and families (not necessarily the government) are best suited to decide the appropriate level of precautions necessary.  For example, a healthy couple with young children should approach returning to Mass differently than an elderly couple with pre-existing health conditions, because the risk is objectively different for the two categories.  Secondly, the common good, the health of others, must also be considered.  Although the couple with young children is facing a disease of low consequence for them, they must consider the potential of infecting those in higher risk categories.  Combining these two principles, it is possible for individuals and families to make prudent decisions.  As an aside, I can attest from my 30 years of experience in public health that government & public health officials detest subsidiarity, because they believe that it is their role to inform and guide your decisions.  Unfortunately, they are unable to assess every situation and therefore generally overreact.

The National Center of Health Statistics website reports that among the 0-44 age category, automobile traffic deaths (19,663) significantly exceed COVID-19 deaths (4,638).  What this means is that for those in this age category, the drive to Mass poses a much greater risk than attending Mass! My advice is that each individual & family determine their own health risk of attending Mass, consider the risk to others, and then make a decision.  In this process, it is essential to focus on the data and ignore the media’s bias.  Even statements by Public Health officials must be taken “with a grain of salt,” since they believe that individuals are unable to make good decisions, and that it is their role to tell you what to do.  Without hesitation, I can say that for the majority of individuals, attending Mass at this time is a low-risk endeavor.  Finally, as should be obvious to us, Mass attendance is of paramount importance for our salvation and therefore we should do all we reasonably can to participate in this great liturgy! 


Sources:

  • For example, there have been 64 deaths due to COVID-19 among the 0-14 age category (of 180,000 total fatalities), whereas there have been 700 deaths due to drowning.
  • COVID-19 fatalities by age from: cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm
  • Deaths from other causes: worldlifeexpectancy.com/usa-cause-of-death-by-age-and-gender
  • The overall rate of infection among the entire population has been determined by randomized testing in 10 separate cities throughout the US. NY City is clearly the exception, with an infection rate of around 20%. All other cites are at 5% or less. For comparison the 1918 flu pandemic caused infections in well over 30% of the population. 
  • Seroprevalence study data from: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/commercial-lab-surveys.html
  • 1918 Influenza infection rate: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3291398/#:~:text=An%20estimated%20one%20third%20of,pandemics%20(3%2C4).
  • Coronavirus infection is significantly less serious than annual flu for those in the 0-24 age category, about the same as annual flu for the 25-45 category, more serious than flu for those in the 45-64, and significantly more serious in those over 65; especially with pre-existing health conditions.
  • COVID-19 fatalities by age from above compared to influenza infection fatality rate average of 0.12%
  • The National Center of Health Statistics website reports that among the 0-44 age category, automobile traffic deaths (19,663) significantly exceed COVID-19 deaths (4,638).
  • COVID-19 fatalities by age from cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm
  • Auto traffic deaths by age from: www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/usa-cause-of-death-by-age-and-gender
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