Dr. Anthony Fauci: To keep churches safe, use masks, limit singing and wait to resume Communion

In this April 22, 2020, file photo, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the new coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, in Washington.

As states around the country begin to ease stay-at-home orders, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said churches should adopt “common sense” measures to protect worshippers and the wider community, like requiring masks, practicing social distancing and prohibiting singing.

Regarding the distribution of Communion, he said, “I think for the time being, you just gotta forestall that.”

In an interview with America on May 26, Dr. Fauci said churches in places experiencing a sustained decline in coronavirus cases can slowly take steps to reopen safely by following public health guidelines, including those released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Fauci serves on the White House’s coronavirus task force.

“You always have to take into account what the dynamic of the outbreak is in your particular region,” Dr. Fauci said. “Having said that, when you’re dealing with a nationwide outbreak like we have right now, you've really got to take precautions.”

Churches should “limit the number of people, so that you don’t have people in the pews right next to each other,” he said. Those gathered should “absolutely” wear masks, Dr. Fauci said.

Asked if he thinks Communion can be distributed safely, Dr. Fauci said “no,” especially in areas still getting the virus under control.

"If the priest is on the altar, separated by 30, 40, 50 feet, you know, I wouldn't think it was absolutely necessary to [use masks],” he said. “But the people who are within six, 10 feet of each other really need to."

In addition, singing should be discouraged, Dr. Faucis said, because it dramatically increases the distance that droplets travel, adding to the possibility of spreading infection.

“When you sing, the amount of droplets and aerosol that come out is really, in some respects, scary,” he said.

Last week, President Trump demanded governors classify houses of worship as essential services and allow them to reopen immediately. But many religious organizations, including Catholic dioceses, are opting for a slower approach, consulting with public health officials before reopening their doors.

Dioceses in New York, Illinois, Michigan and other states hard hit by the virus are in the process of releasing plans and guidelines that instruct parishes to adopt safety measures similar to those suggested by public health officials, including Dr. Fauci. Churches will continue to offer Communion, with many dioceses requiring eucharistic ministers to wear masks and instructing them to use hand sanitizer. Some dioceses are even permitting Catholics to continue receiving the host on the tongue, raising concerns among some Catholics, including the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, which said earlier this month that the practice should be suspended during the pandemic.

Communion is the kind of close interaction "that you don’t want when you’re in the middle of a deadly outbreak,” Dr. Fauci said.

Asked if he thinks Communion can be distributed safely, Dr. Fauci said “no,” especially in areas still getting the virus under control. Last week, researchers said that in 24 states, especially in the South and Midwest, the coronavirus is still spreading at an epidemic rate. Dr. Fauci expressed concern not only about a shared cup for consecrated wine but also about distribution of hosts, and he suggested waiting until the outbreak is more controlled before reintroducing Communion.

“It depends on where you are,” he said. “If you are in a region, a city, a county, where there is a significant amount of infection, I think with distributing Communion, I think that would be risky. I'm telling you that as a Catholic, it would be risky.”

He said the interaction between the priest and multiple people receiving Communion makes distribution unsafe.

“As many times as a priest can wash his hands, he gets to Communion, he puts it in somebody’s hand, they put it in their mouth...it’s that kind of close interaction that you don’t want when you’re in the middle of a deadly outbreak,” he said.

[Listen to America’s original podcast “Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church.”]

A graduate of two Jesuit schools, Regis High School in New York and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., Dr. Fauci said his parents taught him the importance of service, lessons that were fortified by the Jesuits. In particular, he said Regis and Holy Cross taught him to appreciate the importance of “knowledge, facts, evidence, intellectual pursuit and intellectual honesty.”

Describing himself as a Catholic, Dr. Fauci said the values he learned from the Jesuits continue to guide him. “I identify more, much more, with that than the concept of organized churches, religions,” he said.

Dr. Fauci said some people should continue to avoid crowded situations whenever possible, including religious services. Churches have been shown to be particularly risky in terms of creating clusters of infection.

Dr. Fauci has held his post at the National Institutes of Health since 1984. He said that some lessons he learned from the government’s response to H.I.V. and AIDS continue to guide his work, especially the insight that it is important to listen to the communities that are most affected by public health crises.

In the 1980s and ’90s, he said, that meant listening to activists from the L.G.B.T. community, people who used intravenous drugs and sex workers. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, he said, it is clear communities of color are being more affected.

“The disparity is striking,” he said, pointing to high levels of infection and deaths related to the coronavirus among African-Americans. “What I learned from H.I.V. is, take a look at what's going on in the community when you make your policy decisions.”

That means policymakers should “concentrate resources in those areas of our cities and of our states that are highly representative of minority communities because they are the ones that suffer disproportionately more than anyone else,” he added.

With dioceses around the country preparing to invite the public to Masses, which in most places have been suspended since March, individual Catholics will need to decide for themselves how much risk they are willing to take in terms of going to church. Dr. Fauci said he believes some people should continue to avoid crowded situations whenever possible, including religious services. He said that in the short time since the coronavirus was discovered, churches have been shown to be particularly risky in terms of creating clusters of infection.

“There have been situations in multiple countries where the source of the cluster was a church service,” he said. “That's the reason why we gotta be so careful about that.”

As a result, even if churches are open, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions should consider staying home, “because they really are at high risk,” he said. “It would be so tragic for someone who just comes to a place of worship, gets sick themselves, or gets infected and brings it home to an elderly person who might have a compromising comorbidity, and the person gets seriously ill and dies.”

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