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Setting the Record Straight

At the outset of the US shutdowns, it was broadly pointed out that during the 1918 outbreak of Spanish Influenza, churches were closed to stop the spread. And this is…mostly true. But all of us would do well to spend some time studying that terrible Influenza, because it really lends a good deal of perspective on what we are currently undergoing.

During the Spanish Flu Pandemic, somewhere between 20 and 40 million deaths are estimated to have occurred worldwide, possibly more. The most shocking thing about these deaths is that roughly half were among people in their 20s and 30s…people who were healthy and in the prime of their life. Some say that between 8 and 10 percent of all young adults then living were struck down by this virus. As this age group comprised a large proportion of parents of families, this meant that huge numbers of children were left orphans.

There were two main kinds of cases that resulted in fatalities: those that presented like a normal flu, but turned into pneumonia around day five; and those with a rapid and severe onset that caused death within hours to days as fluid quickly filled the lungs. Many of these latter patients suffered broken ribs from the forcefulness of the cough, and bluish or brownish discoloration of the face and other extremities from lack of oxygen as they drowned in bloody froth. It was a mercy that they were often delirious with fever during this torturous death.

Efforts to fight the spread of this deadly plague tended to be undertaken by local municipal authorities rather than by state-wide mandates. Thus, most of the closures of theaters, schools, pool halls, saloons and churches—any venue that attracted large gatherings—tended to be in larger urban areas where the spread of the disease traveled more quickly among the dense population. In many cities, face masks made of several layers of gauze were required…and they were kept clean by being boiled daily. During the height of the pandemic, hospitals, morgues and cemeteries were all overwhelmed as the dead piled up wrapped in blood-soaked sheets.

Now let’s fast forward to 2020. We know a great deal more about infectious disease now than we did in 1918, and we have a much more mobile population. So when this pandemic first hit, we acted with prudence and sought broad closures and stay-at-home orders in order to avoid overwhelming our doctors and hospitals. Nobody wanted to see a repeat of the horrific death rates seen in 1918.

However, as time has gone on, and we now have several months’ worth of data, we find the following consistent facts about this pandemic (data sourced from the CDC website 5/23/20):

  1. Nearly all of the deaths from this virus have comorbidities, including (in order of precedence): hypertension, diabetes, heart or kidney disease, COPD and Cancer.

  2. Only 7% of deaths show COVID-19 as the only cause of death.

  3. Deaths in the under-24 age group are vanishingly rare, and in people up to age 54 only slightly less rare.

  4. Between 20%-50% of cases are estimated to be asymptomatic.

This is a dramatically different picture from the 1918 Flu Pandemic. If you combine the facts above, the likelihood of an average healthy person under the age of 54 having to fight for their lives against this virus is extremely low.

This is not controversial information taken from a conspiracy theory website. This is publicly available data on the CDC website, and anyone with a high school education can deduce the same summary of those facts.

Now here’s where our churches come into the picture. Once again, at the outset of this pandemic, there was little reliable information and a lot of panic. To be safe, our churches were closed. Many pointed to the precedent set during the 1918 Spanish Flu.

But in addition to the demographic disparity we have shown between those affected by each pandemic, there was a significant difference in the nature of the church closures in 1918. Though there is not a great deal of data to be found in this regard, I was able to glean the following facts from reading numerous newspaper articles from that time period:

  1. Churches were closed not by bishops but by individual municipalities as needed.

  2. During the closures, many churches were used to house the sick, and priests and religious cared for them.

  3. These measures were undertaken largely in urban areas with a higher population density.

  4. Closures began only when the influenza began to spread in a particular city (not before), and ended, on average, from 2-8 weeks later.

What can we take away from this?

While we all value life greatly and seek to preserve it at great cost, it is abundantly obvious from the current data we have, that the need to quarantine healthy people below the age of 54 is nonexistent. In addition, I rather hope that by the time a person reaches the age of 55, they are old enough to decide for themselves whether they are comfortable with taking risks or not. Thus, with proper precautions, and with loving care, it is not only completely reasonable, but very necessary, for us to open our churches and resume public Mass with the faithful present, while continuing to dispense our Sunday obligation to accommodate those at risk.

This should not be a controversial statement. Yes, some churches were closed in 1918, but only in areas where it was needed, not nationwide. And as soon as they could possibly reopen, they did. Nobody shamed others for being anxious to return to the sacraments, nobody instituted punitive measures to make sure that precise regulations were followed; with faith in God, everybody naturally trusted that inside a Church was the best place to be.

Compared with the gruesome scenes of death described in accounts of the Spanish Flu, the facts stated above about this pandemic pale in comparison. And for this very reason, we must move past our fear and see that the time is long past due for our churches to be reopened.

Not weeks from now, not after lengthy and complicated certification processes.



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Liz Cipriano
Liz Cipriano
May 24, 2020

Completely true... not with a certification process... now. Local parishes should decide, not decisions made primarily letting the state health department taking the lead. They are not in charge of our sacramental life. They do not have the right. They never had it.

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