Health officials in Washington, D.C., are urging hundreds of worshippers who recently visited a local Episcopal church to self-quarantine after the parish’s rector tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
Rev. Timothy Cole, leader of Christ Church, Georgetown, identified himself as a confirmed novel coronavirus patient in a letter to congregants on Sunday. He received the diagnosis about a week after he participated in Sunday services attended by around 550 people on March 1, including one service in which he helped distribute Holy Communion.
Parishioners who had contact with Cole have a “medium risk” of exposure to the new coronavirus, according to Anjali Talwalkar, senior deputy director for the community health administration at the D.C. Health Department. Cole is the city’s first known coronavirus patient.
The department is calling on people who visited Christ Church on Feb. 24 and between Feb. 28 and March 3rd to isolate themselves for 14 days from the last time they visited the church.
“That is when our case was symptomatic,” Talwalkar said at a press conference on Monday morning. “So anybody who was potentially exposed during that time, out of caution and best practices for disease control, that’s the recommendation.”
Cole is currently in stable condition at a local hospital, church spokesperson Rob Volmer told HuffPost.
In his letter, the priest urged his congregants to follow the CDC’s coronavirus prevention guidelines.
“There is no need to panic,” the rector wrote.
Cole returned to the capital from a conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on Feb. 22, Volmer said. The rector felt sick on Feb. 24 but started feeling better later in the week, attending an all-day church council retreat on Feb. 28.
Cole “felt fine” the following Sunday, March 1, Volmer said. The rector participated in services that day, handing out Communion at the 11:15 a.m. service. Cole also urged his parishioners to be diligent about washing their hands to protect themselves from the coronavirus, Volmer said.
On March 3, Cole visited a doctor and was diagnosed with the flu, Volmer said. Two days later, he was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. By March 7, he was confirmed to have COVID-19.
“I want to assure you that I will be okay,” Cole wrote to his church on Sunday. “I am receiving excellent care and am in good spirits under the circumstances.”
Christ Church canceled services on March 8 and has indefinitely suspended future gatherings. It’s the first time the church has been shuttered since a fire in the 1800s, CBS reports.
Christ Church is located in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, less than two miles from the White House. Founded in 1817, the congregation currently includes many government officials, according to CBS.
Volmer said he is currently in self-quarantine with his family. He said many fellow Christ Church attendees have also agreed to quarantine.
The church keeps sanitizing gels on hand for parishioners during services, Volmer said. It’s also common practice for its priests to wash their hands before services. Communion bread is typically placed into parishioners’ cupped hands, Volmer said. The wine is usually distributed through a common chalice. Some sip from the chalice directly, while others dip the bread into the wine, he said.
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, told HuffPost that she has issued new mandatory guidelines on Monday for churches and schools under her watch.
Budde has suspended the distribution of wine during Communion and is requiring priests to use wafers instead of bread. Physical contact with fellow churchgoers is no longer allowed before, during and after worship, including during the Peace, a moment in the liturgy when parishioners typically greet each other with handshakes and hugs.
Budde has also instructed parishes to drain water from baptismal fonts and ensure that those leading worship and administering Communion are sanitizing their hands.
The novel coronavirus has infected at least 600 people in the U.S., resulting in 26 deaths, The Associated Press reported Monday. Worldwide, over 113,000 people have tested positive for the disease and nearly 4,000 people have died.
Volmer said that Christ Church parishioners are praying for “all those affected, all those in fear, and all those working to find solutions.”
“We firmly believe we are held in God’s embrace through it all,” he said.