As the deadly Wuhan coronavirus spread around the world, including two known cases reported in Toronto, Church officials continued to monitor the situation before making any decisions about implementing the types of safety protocols that followed similar outbreaks in the past.

Updated 2020-01-29 09:33:

“We’re still monitoring the situation and encouraging parishioners and parishes to be diligent in ensuring best practices relating to hygiene,” said Neil MacCarthy, director of public relations and communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto. “This includes using hand sanitizer, washing hands, etc. At this point, we haven’t been asked to escalate from local health officials but we’ll continue the dialogue in days ahead.”

Other Canadian dioceses are also closely monitoring the coronavirus outbreak in China, but no special precautions have been implemented at churches amid spreading concerns of a worldwide pandemic along the lines of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and the H1N1 virus, which causes what is known as the “swine flu,” from earlier this century. 

The Catholic Register contacted several of the larger dioceses across Canada, and most said they will be taking their lead from local and provincial health departments.

“Nothing is contemplated re coronavirus at this time, but we would take our cue from provincial health authorities,” said Lorraine Turchansky, chief communications officer with the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

The answers were similar from Hamilton, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax-Yarmouth, Montreal, London and Ottawa.

By The Register’s press time, there were three cases confirmed in Canada: a B.C. man who travelled regularly to China, and a husband and wife from the Toronto area. The couple had visited Wuhan, China, where the outbreak is centred and has affected 4,500 people, killing 106 (as of Jan. 28). They began to show symptoms when they returned to Canada and the husband has been admitted to hospital while the wife is under home isolation. Health officials expect more cases will surface. 

School boards are also keeping a close eye on the outbreak and are relying on health officials for their expertise.

“The Toronto Catholic District School Board takes the health and safety of its students and staff very seriously,” the board said in a letter to parents. “We continue to follow standard cleaning and disinfection protocols throughout our buildings.”

The York Catholic board said it will take its direction from the health authorities.

The Ontario government has also moved to assure students, parents and school communities that the health and education ministries are “working together in close co-operation with our partners in both the education and health sectors to ensure the continued safety and well-being of students and staff,” it said in a statement released by Christine Elliott and Stephen Lecce, the Ministers of Health and Education, respectively. Directors of education have been briefed by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and his associate Dr. Barbara Yaffe on the province’s protocols to monitor, detect and contain any cases of the virus.

Dioceses generally have protocols in place should such an outbreak occur, and such plans were most recently implemented in 2009 when the H1N1 virus wreaked havoc worldwide. Statistics vary widely, but the Centre for Disease Control in the United States estimates between 151,000 and 575,000 people died from the H1N1 virus. In Canada, Statistics Canada reported 428 deaths from among the thousands infected.

In September 2009, then Archbishop Thomas Collins cautioned Toronto parishes in a letter to remain vigilant about the swine flu. The letter recommended parishioners use hygiene practices specific to the celebration of the liturgy and suggested parishes provide hand-cleaning stations. 

The 2003 SARS outbreak that caused 44 deaths in Toronto among the 774 deaths worldwide, saw Toronto parishes take similar precautions. The archdiocese suspended Communion from the cup, banned handshaking during the Sign of Peace and stopped reception of Communion on the tongue. Some priests even wore a surgical mask when hearing confession. 

Officials in Ontario are monitoring 19 people and had ruled out the virus in 16 others, said Yaffe at a Jan. 27 news briefing. Williams also said that despite the two confirmed cases in Toronto, “the risk to Ontarians remains low.” 

China has restricted travel for 35 million people in 12 cities near the centre of the outbreak, including Wuhan with its population of 11 million. Hospitals have been overwhelmed by the expanding outbreak.