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CDC delivers an Easter Day message: Love thy neighbor by social distancing

A new Chicago-based study shows how quickly COVID-19 can spread among people who partake in the ordinary activities that come with friendship, love and faith.

Holy Name Cathedral, like most large churches in Illinois and around the country, will be closed for services this Easter Sunday because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sun-Times Media

A person in Chicago who came down with COVID-19 might have caught the bug just by passing the offering plate at church.

For 90 minutes, this person sat within one row of three people who had contracted the coronavirus at a birthday party six days earlier. They chatted and passed the offering plate.

This small detail is included in a new study by the Centers for Disease Control, released Wednesday, that vividly shows how quickly the coronavirus can spread among people who partake in the ordinary activities that come with friendship, love and faith: sharing a meal, attending a funeral, going to a birthday party, visiting a sick friend and going to church.

One person had the virus. Which led to 16 more people catching the virus. Which led to three people dying.

Easter, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, is this Sunday, and we know how difficult it will be for many people to continue to practice the rules of physical distancing that are essential to defeating the spread of COVID-19.

Churches have canceled services, and city and state officials have imposed a ban on such public gatherings. But for many people, it will feel unnatural, even sacrilegious, not to hold or attend services in some way. And it will feel horribly wrong not to visit with family and friends, hiding Easter eggs for the children and sitting down to an extended family dinner.

But the facts of the CDC study deliver a powerful message:

In the name of the very values celebrated on Easter Sunday — faith, hope and love — we should all resist the temptation to discard the rules of physical distancing.

To honor the spirit of Easter is to stay home.

The CDC study doesn’t say anything like that explicitly. Epidemiologists don’t trade in words like faith and love. There’s just no other way to read the study’s message. Proper physical distancing involves more than working from home, staying off the L and out of barber shops. It is also about foregoing, or reconfiguring, precious social rituals.

Like going to a funeral. In the CDC’s case study, the chain of transmission of the coronavirus began in February when a family gathered in Chicago for a funeral. One member of the family, who had been out of state, was feeling slightly sick. This person hugged other people at the funeral and, within days, one of those people fell ill.

Like sharing a dinner. The night before the funeral, this member of the family — dubbed “Patient A1.1” in the study — shared a takeout meal with two members of the deceased person’s family at their home. Two days later, one of the two dinner friends began to feel sick. This person eventually would die of COVID-19. Four days after the dinner, the other friend got sick.

Like going to a birthday party. At about that time, Patient A1.1 attended a birthday party. Soon after, seven people who had been at the party got sick. Two of them eventually would die.

Like visiting a sick friend. Meanwhile, a family member visited one of A1.1’s sick dinner friends in the hospital. This person did not wear a protective mask or gown, and there were more hugs. Three days later, this person fell ill.

Like going to church. Three of the seven people who caught the bug at the birthday party went to church together six days after developing their first symptoms. Days later, the person with whom they shared the offering plate fell ill.

This is how the virus spreads, as much or more among folks who know each other as among strangers in a grocery store.

And nobody is the wiser until it’s too late.

In Kansas on Wednesday, the state Legislature overrode a provision of the governor’s stay-at-home order that banned public gatherings — even in churches — of more than 10 people. The Legislature foolishly scoffed at the danger of the virus, which is just beginning to build in Kansas, and framed the issue as one of religious freedom.

We would encourage the Kansas Legislature to read the CDC’s Chicago case study. They might want to pay particular attention to the part about passing the offering plate.

There’s no loving thy neighbor in passing along a deadly virus, even if unknowingly.

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