Before Holy Week, the Ohio Catholic Bishops sent out a final update for COVID-19. There were no new guidelines in the letter – just encouragement; and their letter ended: “We look forward with eager longing to when we can all be together around the altar of the Lord without any restrictions. In the meantime, let us continue to do all that we need to do to overcome the virus, and rely upon the guidance of government and health officials so that we can return to some sense of normal.” (Underlining is mine). You perhaps have noticed that various parishes instituted a “family and friends” section towards the end of Lent. That is because pastors are now using their best judgement on best to follow the government and health officials; and various pastors, with their parish leadership teams, decided the time was right to relax just a bit, given that people are getting vaccinated and starting to come back to Mass, requiring some more pew space.
Well, on April 5, 2021, the CDC (United States Center for Disease Control) finally changed its guidelines regarding surface transmission of the COVID-19 virus. I am told that the major news outlets even reported this CDC change; so perhaps you are already aware of it. In the very, very brief synopsis which follows, I am relying on the following website pages of the CDC, as well as three other scientific articles, and even an editorial from the Atlantic magazine. Here are the links, so that I don't have to enter them into the text every time. The scientific articles are pretty hard to read, but it's all there. Even since last July studies were published stating that surface transmission was highly unlikely.
CDC April 5 guidelines for cleaning facilities for prevention of COVID:(https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/disinfecting-building-facility.html)
CDC Science Brief: Sars-Covid-2 and Surface Transmission (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/science-and-research/surface-transmission.html)
The Lancet Infectious Diseases, July 3, 2020, Emanuel Goldman (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30561-2/fulltext) “Exaggerated Risk of Transmission of COVID-19 by Fomites” (“fomites” = surfaces). [This is the premier journal in the world for studies on infectious diseases.]
Nature, January 2, 2021 (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00277-8) “Coronavirus Is In the Air – There's Too Much Focus on Surfaces”
Nature, February 4, 2021 (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00251-4) “COVID-19 Rarely Infects Through Surfaces. So Why Are We Still Deep Cleaning?”
The Atlantic, April 13, 2021 (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/04/end-hygiene-theater/618576/) “Deep cleaning isn’t a victimless crime: The CDC has finally said what scientists have been screaming for months: The coronavirus is overwhelmingly spread through the air, not via surfaces.”
The bottom line is that the CDC finally said that surface transmission of COVID-19 is not likely. Here is a pretty enlightening quote from the new CDC Science Brief page linked above: “Findings of these studies suggest that the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection via the fomite transmission route is low, and generally less than 1 in 10,000, which means that each contact with a contaminated surface has less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of causing an infection.” So, imagine on any given weekend Mass some 10,000 touches of the pew you sit on, before there would be the transmission of COVID. And, that would be pretty impossible, given that we only have hundreds of people through the church on a weekend; and only one person is sitting in each space; and then we are alternating pews (except in the family and friends section) so that that same spot does not get used for another 24 hours; and then the COVID virus won't last 24 hours on a surface. At the very beginning of COVID-19, we knew very little about the virus; and I remember stories of the virus being able to stay alive for some five days on a surface. But, further studies have changed this belief entirely. For the most part, it wasn't really live, infectious virus particles which were found on surfaces after five days. To put into my layman's slang: It was dead shells of the virus.
There's more from the CDC brief and other articles that suggest the chance of surface transmission is even less than the “1 in 10,000 chance” noted above: 1) The statistic specifically applies to a known “contaminated surface”; 2) If the surface is porous (like our pews), the chance of transmission is even less than with non-porous surfaces; 3) the studies performed in controlled lab environments used very high concentrations of the virus, not really mimicking the random location and significantly lower concentration of the virus in the wild; 4) add to all of this the fact that we for the most part – with our alternating pews from Mass-to-Mass – are not even touching the same pews within a 24 hour period.
All of this (and please read the articles and their imbedded links) leads me to the moral certainty that transmission of COVID-19 by means of our pews at Mass is very, very, very unlikely. Also, the CDC reiterates in the above links that the best measure against COVID-19 is good hygiene. We have the hand sanitizers in our gathering space, and almost without fail, parishioners entering before Mass use these sanitizers. I witness this for the 10 or so minutes that I am in the gathering space before Mass.
With all of this mind, I have decided that we will no longer disinfect the pews. We have put much effort into disinfecting the pews between every use, since the beginning of COVID. I thank the Lord for Cheryl Brandeberry, who has wrapped her life around our cleaning needs in this past year of COVID. That has even meant middle-of-the-night cleanings!! But, given what science has told us at least since July, it seems obvious that we can stop the extraordinary effort. The CDC has now changed its official instructions.
I realize that there might be some people who are uncomfortable with this change. For these people we will have a supply of disinfecting wipes at the entrances of the church; so that they can take a wipe or two and cleanse their own areas before they sit there. [In my last parish, at all three campuses, these wipes have been used ever since the start of COVID, and there has been no suggestion that COVID was spread from Masses in that parish.]
I should note that we are not changing our policy on face masks or social distancing. We will maintain the “family and friends” section for people who are not as concerned with social distancing. With so many people getting vaccinated, we have to realize that people are going to start feeling more comfortable around each other…. Everybody is still encouraged to wear masks.
Lastly, please continue to be prudent about coming to Mass. Please do not come to Mass if you believe that you have flu-like or COVID-like symptoms!! Even after the Bishops re-instate the obligation to attend weekend Mass, nobody is obligated to come to Mass who believes he or she is sick, or who believes that he or she will still be particularly vulnerable! Let's continue to be cautious, especially in this regard. With the hand sanitizers, with masks, with people avoiding Mass when they feel sick, we should succeed in avoiding COVID in our parish gatherings. Thanks for your consideration of all of this!
Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu, Mariae, et Iosephus,