Deacon Rob Lanciotti of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Collins holds a doctoral degree in Microbiology and was employed as a virologist for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) for 29 years. Deacon Lanciotti was kind enough to put together this Q&A with more information about coronavirus and how Catholics can keep themselves healthy.
Note: The information in the Q&A is current as of Feb. 28, 2020.
Should I be concerned about the new (COVID-19) coronavirus?
The virus is not yet causing an epidemic in the USA (19 total cases, all but two from returning travelers), however, we need to be prepared for a potential epidemic. Some proven good prevention practices are what all of us should be doing anyway, since we are in the midst of our annual flu epidemic. We should also prepare mentally for whatever changes in our lifestyle may occur in the event of an epidemic. For example, there could be school closings, or some churches may choose to discontinue the Sign of Peace and/or Precious Blood distribution at Masses.
You mention influenza virus, how is the new coronavirus different?
The two viruses are genetically from completely different Families, however, their mode of transmission from one person to another is very similar, and so good prevention methods for flu (and the 200 different common cold viruses) will also work with the new coronavirus. These viruses can be transmitted when an infected person (usually with symptoms, but not always) expels virus particles by coughing, sneezing, or even breathing. These aerosolized droplets can directly enter into the respiratory tract of another adjacent person by directly breathing them in, or as they land on the nose or mouth, followed by ingestion. Alternatively, these droplets may fall onto environmental surfaces, where it is then possible for another person to acquire the virus by touch. When this person subsequently touches their mouth, nose or eyes, the virus can be ingested leading to an infection. Under typical room temperature and humidity, these viruses may remain viable for 5-10 days on an uncleaned surface; again, many factors influence this.
Does this new coronavirus cause more serious illness & death?
Overall it is a little bit too early to know for sure. However, there is preliminary data that suggests the coronavirus is associated with more severe illness and death than the typical flu strain. For some perspective, there are approximately 30 million flu cases in the USA each year and approximately 30,000 deaths; the mortality rate is therefore 0.1 percent. Of course, these numbers vary each year, however, the numbers I selected make the math very easy! Early estimates suggest a mortality rate of one to two percent for the new coronavirus, however it really is too early to know for sure.
What are the “good prevention methods” that you mention?
Keep in mind that these are well established and documented to be effective from many years of studying flu and other viruses with identical transmission profiles. They are also listed in order of priority with particular consideration of attending Church services. Finally, these should be practiced every flu season (September-March) regardless of what transpires with the new coronavirus.
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms; runny nose, coughing, sneezing, muscle aches, fever, etc. the following should be practiced using good judgement based upon the severity of the symptoms:
– Avoid close contact with others. Use good judgement and common sense about attending Church; for example, it may be advisable to stay home (see Catechism 2181). If you attend church, limit/avoid contact with others. Perhaps stand in the back of the Church or sit apart; leave immediately after the Final Blessing; do not participate in the Sign of Peace, Communion from the Cup, or especially function as an Extraordinary Minister. Again, use common sense.
– Wash hands often using soap & hot water or hand sanitizer. However, this is not a “magic bullet” that will allow you to function normally in a Church setting if you are sick. This is also a good prevention method when you are healthy and come to church where others may be sick.
– Cover your mouth with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hand!) when you cough & sneeze. Coughing or sneezing into your hand will transmit the virus to your hand, then potentially transmit the virus to another person when you shake their hand. You may even consider wearing a surgical mask, both to prevent spreading to others when sick, as well as preventing your own infection from others.
– Clean environmental surfaces often. This is a reminder for Church employees to be especially diligent during flu season to clean the environment; especially the childcare environments. Any typical cleaner used properly will kill these viruses.
Can I get infected with any of these viruses from the Communion cup?
Believe it or not, there have been a few controlled scientific studies to determine the potential for infections from a shared communion cup. The summary of these studies is that there is a very low risk of infection overall. Interestingly, the studies indicate that the mode of infection in this practice is more commonly the touching of the cup with infected hands (from coughing & sneezing etc.) followed by transferring to another person, rather than by saliva. Take home message is that it is a good practice to avoid receiving the Precious Blood when you are ill. Remember that theologically speaking, receiving either form of the Eucharist is to receive the fullness of Jesus in the sacrament.
With respect to influenza, should I get the flu vaccine? I know somebody who got the vaccine and still got sick!
This has become an area of controversy and I will attempt to offer a few simple points for consideration; in the end you should discuss with your doctor. Keep in mind that there is no perfect vaccine; there are always some unintended adverse reactions to vaccines that occur in very low frequencies, no public health agency would ever claim otherwise. However, there is no conspiracy among the government or vaccine producers; these have been circulated and unfortunately are depriving the average citizen from making an informed decision.
First of all, many who receive the flu vaccine and still got sick, were not actually infected by influenza but rather by one of the 200 strains of the common cold viruses. Yet there are many documented cases of flu illness among vaccine recipients. In fact, the CDC publishes this information every year. The vaccine effectiveness ranges from 40-60 percent each year. From an individualistic standpoint this may not seem like good odds–“If I get the vaccine, I still have a 50 percent chance of getting the flu!” However, getting the vaccine, even at a 50% effective rate, will have a community-wide prevention benefit; fewer people infected means fewer transmissions and fewer new cases etc. Estimates are that well over 20,000 deaths are prevented each year by this vaccine, in spite of the fact that many individuals still get sick.