Understanding the Context…
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Understanding the context

On the weekend of Feb. 15-16, I was in New York City at a conference with thousands of attendees from all over the country and a considerable number of visitors from Lombardy, Italy. I directed a choir at a packed Mass with Archbishop Christophe Pierre (Papal Nuncio to the USA), shared meals, handshakes, and alike. I had never heard the word “coronavirus”, although I could probably have recalled some news from a distant place in China about an outbreak. Five days later, on Friday, Feb. 21, an infectious disease specialist at the Sacco Hospital in Milan and consultant to the WHO, turned on his phone and found countless text messages from his colleagues expressing concern or asking questions, such as “What is happening?”, “What do we do?” … he realized an epidemic had started in his country. Soon after, Italy would go into lockdown. Two and a half weeks later, we had our first Easter Choir rehearsal at St. John’s with over 40 people. It was fun and beautiful, and I could not understand what all that hysteria about a new virus was about. As we would always do, we followed local government guidelines, that at the time didn’t recommend stopping any gathering. Two days later, the governor asked to limit gatherings to 250. On Monday, that number went down to 50, and on Wednesday Bishop Quinn made what he called “the most difficult decision” of his ministry; the suspension of all public Masses. The fact that our country went from one reported death on February 29, to 140,000 in less than five months, shows clearly that this was not a “hysteria”.

In a matter of days, our church community (as everyone else) was placed in front of an unprecedented challenge. Very little was known, besides maybe the devastating Italian developments that were in front of everyone’s eyes, as a dramatic warning of what could come next. In our staff, we began a serious work to understand what was going on, what were the risks, and how to proceed.

Why did we close?
This was a question I was often asked during those first weeks (while we never literally “closed” the church, we did suspend all public Masses). In order to answer this question, we need to understand how we get infected with COVID-19. You get infected when you get exposed to an infectious dose of the virus; based on the stunning rate of infection that we are seeing around us, as well as studies done with other coronaviruses, it appears that only small doses may be needed for an infection to occur. Many experts believe that as few as 1,000 infectious viral particles could get you infected. This means that you’re not going to contract the disease because of a single particle of SARS-Cov-2 (what is the virus that causes COVID-19). You need what is called a “viral load”.

Now, let’s do a very simplified math with some numbers from other coronaviruses, just to help us understand the situation. With general breathing, you expel about 20 viral particles per minute into the environment. If you are infected, a person breathing in those particles would need about an hour with you in order to get infected. But if you are speaking, then you release 200 particles per minute, reducing the time to about 5 minutes. As we can see, an infection is a combination of EXPOSURE + TIME. That’s why walking by an infected individual at the grocery store or being passed by a jogger in the street are not considered serious risks. However, remaining in a common space with an infected person for a prolonged amount of time (as it happens in the Celebration of the Eucharist), presents a much greater danger. And this should help us understand why government officials worldwide made those drastic decisions that, despite our dislike, saved an enormous amount of lives (and kept our hospitals below capacity).

So, what measures have we taken to resume our liturgical celebrations, although in a limited way? We’ll talk about that in the next issue… stay tuned!
If you’ve got a question regarding our protocols, write me at smodarelli@sj.org.*

Writings by Michael Skinner, Erin Bromage, Willem van Schaik and the CDC have been consulted to write this article.

Sebastian Modarelli
Music & Liturgy
Co-Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.