All Saints eighth graders Zoraya Hernandez and Page Doleski wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation. All schools in the archdiocese have closed because of the new coronavirus until the end of March. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
All Saints eighth graders Zoraya Hernandez and Page Doleski wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation. All schools in the archdiocese have closed because of the new coronavirus until the end of March. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)


In what he called “by far one of the most difficult communications I have ever written,” Archbishop Alexander Sample announced March 16 that all Masses in the Archdiocese of Portland — including those for Holy Week and Easter — were canceled through April 14.

The archbishop shared the news in a letter to the faithful issued the same day Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced that gatherings of more than 25 people were banned for four weeks. Brown also said the state’s bars and restaurants must close and urged Oregonians to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

The governor’s decision was the latest set of drastic actions intended to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. Earlier Monday, President Donald Trump made a similar recommendation that gatherings not exceed 10 people.

“I suspect that at some point 10 people will become the law,” wrote Archbishop Sample in the letter. He said it would be impossible to manage the 10-25-person limit in Masses in the parishes and missions of western Oregon.

It was a choice made “with a very heavy heart,” he said.

COVID-19 emerged in the eastern Chinese city of Wuhan in December, and the World Health Organization said that, by March 16, 7,100 deaths and 181,500 infections had been confirmed. As of this printing, there where 47 confirmed cases of the virus in Oregon and one death.

With Archbishop Sample’s announcement, he dispensed all the faithful from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation through April 14.

“This will be particularly hard because this will take us through Holy Week and Easter,” said the archbishop, noting that additional information, direction, suggestions and pastoral guidance will be forthcoming “as we navigate together these uncharted waters.”

Archbishop Sample said he would be reminding priests of the importance of offering daily Mass, though not publicly, for the good of the faithful and for an end to the crisis.

“I am sorry beyond words to have to make this decision,” he wrote. “It is very painful for me to do so. In the midst of this we must remember that the holy Eucharist remains the source and summit of the Christian life. May our hunger for the Mass and the Body of Christ be a source of grace for us.”

Vulnerable Catholics were excused

“May your faith be your guiding light during these challenging times, and know that I am praying for you,” Archbishop Sample said in a video released to the faithful March 13. “And with God’s grace, we will overcome and become closer through this challenging time.”

Prior to the governor’s new orders, the archbishop had said March 12 Masses would continue in western Oregon. He offered directives to keep the faithful safe, encouraging those 60 and older and those who are frail to stay home from Mass, since they are the most vulnerable to the virus.

Calling the Eucharist the way people “encounter the mystery of our redemption, are nourished by God’s Word, and receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ,” the March 12 statement from the archdiocese had said there is a “grave obligation” for Catholics to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.

But a “just cause” like keeping worshippers safe from the pandemic can allow for releasing them from the obligation, the letter said.

Those 60 and older were dispensed from the obligation to attend Mass, as were people who have underlying medical issues or compromised immune systems.

Anyone not feeling well was told they should not attend Mass and was dispensed from the obligation. Finally, Catholics who “sincerely and seriously” feel they might be at risk were given a general dispensation from the archbishop, no matter their age.

“The faithful who are in attendance at Mass are reminded to avoid all physical contact with others and should attempt to keep a safe distance from each other,” said the March 12 statement.

On March 11, Brown had banned all public gatherings, including religious services, of more than 250 people.

Most Masses celebrated on the weekends in the Archdiocese of Portland are far below 250. The first statement from the archbishop said that any parish gathering exceeding that number should be canceled. St. Ignatius Parish in Southeast Portland and The Madeleine Parish in Northeast Portland canceled all weekend Masses March 14 – 15, a sign of things to come.

For parishes with Mass attendance above 250, the archdiocese had asked pastors to “be creative,” urging worshippers to attend less populous churches, adding Masses or livestreaming. A number of parishes did livestream or record liturgies. That includes St. Pius X and the cathedral in Portland and St. Anne in Grants Pass. The list is expected to grow.

Precious Blood not offered

In a Feb. 28 memo, the Archdiocese of Portland recommended that parishes refrain from offering the Precious Blood at Mass, explaining that the fullness of Christ is present in either the Body or the Blood. The memo suggested that the sign of peace be done with nods of the head or verbal greetings rather than by touching and reaffirmed the archdiocese’s general discouragement of holding hands during the Our Father.

Catholics who do not attend Mass were encouraged to make an act of spiritual communion, the memo added. In spiritual communion, people unite themselves to God through prayer.

In early March, the archdiocese urged parishes to drain holy water fonts and sanitize hymnals and pews on a regular basis. The church doors should be sanitized before and after each Mass and restrooms should get frequent cleaning, a message to parishes said.

Greeters and clergy were told they should avoid handshakes and avoid all physical contact, the archdiocese warned, appealing to all ministers to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly. The archdiocese had asked priests to avoid touch when blessing those in the Communion line who do not receive.

Parishes made changes

At Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland, the church bells rang their usual summons the morning of March 15. But the 8 a.m. Mass had a little more than 50% of the usual attendance.

Holy Redeemer’s large baptismal font, usually flowing and full, was drained. The hymnals were gone, taken out because they might pass along the virus. No one brought up the gifts and the assembly skipped the sign of peace. Instead of passing a collection basket, worshippers dropped off donations in the back of church.

“A lot of this feels strange to us, but we want to be careful not to spread the virus,” said Holy Cross Father Pat Neary, the pastor.

In his homily, Father Neary discussed using technology to reach out to people in this time of social distancing. What people thirst for most is connection, he said.

Holy Redeemer canceled its popular Lenten fish fries and a soup supper.

At St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland March 15, little family groups tried to give their fellow parishioners space and thereby protect one another. The gaps between people seemed a reminder of the absent parishioners making a decision for the common good, while the family groups were a reminder of just how sacred those intimate relationships are — families share germs in good times and in bad.

St. Joseph Parish in Salem intended to separate the congregation into smaller groups at each Mass in the church and the school gym. But being the second largest parish in the archdiocese, leaders decided the parish was not prepared to do everything necessary in just a few days. And so the leaders canceled weekend Masses for March 14 – 15.

“It is excruciatingly painful personally for me to make this decision, but I must admit the fact that the parish is far from being prepared for all of this, not to mention the very little time to comply with the directives,” wrote Father Paolo Dayto, parochial vicar at St. Joseph, on the parish’s Facebook page. “It truly breaks my heart. But, at the moment, your greater good, well-being, safety and welfare must be my utmost priority more than anything else.”

Father Dayto said the plan was to have Masses continue under the original plan the following week, the parish having time to gather volunteers and resources needed. That will no longer be the case.

Father John Marshall, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Milwaukie, sent a message out advising parishioners of new safety measures. The priest stopped distribution of the Precious Blood, told the faithful to avoid physical contact during the Lord’s Prayer and sign of peace, and encouraged those feeling ill to stay home. The holy water fonts were emptied.

At Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, there was already an annual practice of not administering the Precious Blood during the flu season, said Deacon Brett Edmonson, pastoral associate. On the first weekend in March, Father Dave Gutmann had told worshippers not to feel obligated to shake hands during the sign of peace or hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer. He also encouraged parishioners to wash hands regularly, to cover coughs and to skip Mass when feeling sick. By the end of the second week in March, all weekend Masses and the weekly school Mass were canceled. Daily Mass had been scheduled to continue as usual. Now that is halted, too.

Resurrection Parish in Tualatin is in its second year of not offering the Precious Blood during flu season. There had been plans to offer it on Easter.

At The Madeleine Parish in Northeast Portland, Father Mike Biewend had sent a note urging seniors to stay away from Mass for their own well-being. Some seniors from the parish said they would skip Sunday Mass but attend daily Mass and adoration.

At the end of the week, Father Biewend informed parishioners that weekend Masses of March 14-15 were canceled.

In an email to parishioners March 3, St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver, Washington, informed its faithful that there would be changes after guidelines issued by the Archdiocese of Seattle, where the virus has hit hard.

“Our response to this spreading virus must reflect how we, as disciples of Jesus, love our neighbor and love God,” said the message. “In caring for all members of our community — especially the elderly and the vulnerable — we are carrying out the mission of the church. We must do our part to help prevent the spread of the virus.”

The Seattle Archdiocese canceled all public Masses beginning March 11.

Communion on tongue OK

Before all Masses were canceled, there were reports that some western Oregon Catholics were refused Communion on the tongue at their parishes. The Archdiocese of Portland Office of Divine Worship therefore issued a March 2 memo explaining that parishes were not free to ban the practice. Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the office, consulted with Archbishop Alexander Sample on the matter.

The archdiocese conferred with two physicians, one of whom is a specialist in immunology for the state of Oregon. “They agreed that done properly the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand pose a more or less equal risk,” said the memo from Msgr. O’Connor. “The risk of touching the tongue and passing the saliva on to others is obviously a danger, however, the chance of touching someone’s hand is equally probable and one’s hands have a greater exposure to germs.”

He urged clergy and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to avoid touching the hands or the tongues of communicants.

Social services challenges

Across western Oregon, volunteers at parish St. Vincent de Paul food pantries took measures to prevent spread of the virus. At Holy Redeemer, the workers met guests outside and asked about symptoms. Both volunteers and guests sanitized hands and volunteers did all the handling of food.

Catholic-founded Blanchet House of Hospitality in downtown Portland, where hundreds of people who are homeless are fed daily, stopped serving seated meals March 17, following Brown’s order that all eateries close for four weeks.

“While I endorse this move, I am sad that we have to close perhaps the last indoor refuge remaining for our meal guests,” said Scott Kerman, executive director. However the cafe did not plan to stop serving meals entirely. “We will not abandon the hundreds of people who depend on us for food,” Kerman said.

The staff planned to transition to preparing and packing to-go meals three times a day.

Previously Blanchet had been limiting the dining room to 30 diners at a time and wiping down surfaces with bleach after each seating. Blanchet House workers had been evaluating guests for signs of illness and offering food to go to those who appeared contagious.

Blanchet called for donations of single-serving wrapped foods that are easy to open and consume. Blanchet also sought more volunteers under 60 to help pack and hand out meals.

Senior living centers and nursing homes in Oregon went into lockdown. It was not clear whether volunteers would be allowed in to give Communion or whether priests would be allowed to come to offer anointing of the sick.

Catholic hospitals on front lines

Earlier this month, Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said special attention would be given to those who are most vulnerable to the new disease: the elderly, those with underlying medical conditions and the homeless.

Those considered high risk include adults 60 and older, anyone with a serious health condition, including lung or heart problems, kidney disease, or diabetes, and anyone who has a suppressed immune system.

Oregon’s legislators supplied the state’s efforts with $5 million in funding.

“We know we’ll see more cases,” Allen said. “All of us have a role to play in slowing the spread.”

The Oregon Health Authority on March 15 announced the state’s first COVID-19 death, a 70-year-old man at Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

PeaceHealth and Providence hospitals have instituted the processes and precautions they hope will save lives

Oregon’s two Catholic hospital networks have instituted voluntary visitor restrictions. The systems were also at the forefront of fighting to save lives in Washington, the epicenter of the virus in the United States.

At PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington, visitors have not been allowed since March 14, a policy that will last until further notice, with a few specific exemptions.

In its Oregon hospitals, PeaceHealth requests people not visit if they feel unwell or are under 16. Only one visitor per patient is being allowed.

Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington, about 30 miles north of Seattle, was the first U.S. hospital to care for a patient with COVID-19, on Jan. 19. That person had recently returned from Wuhan.

Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Washington, did the testing for one of Oregon’s first patients.

In Oregon, Providence Medford Medical Center caregivers have trained using a decontamination tent that could be used should the hospital run out of beds.

Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland also ran a “readiness exercise” outside the hospital, using “patient overflow tents.”

The tents represent what health professionals are most worried about: too many very sick patients and not enough hospital beds, ventilators or staff for them.

According to a 2018 survey done by Kaiser Family Foundation, Oregon, with 1.6 hospital beds per 1,000 residents, has the lowest ratio of hospital beds to its population in the nation.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States as a whole has 2.8 beds per 1,000 people. For comparison, South Korea, which has been praised for its thus far successful handling of the coronavirus, has between 11.5 and 12.5 beds per 1,000 people.

The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems reported in 2018 that the state’s 62 hospitals had 6,601 staffed hospital beds. Those beds were 64% occupied. That leaves 2,376 beds for coronavirus patients.

In a press conference held before the governor instituted measures to slow the spread of the virus, Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state health officer, had warned that Oregon could see 75,000 new cases of COVID-19 by mid-May unless drastic measures were taken.

China’s experience suggested that 15% of people infected would need hospitalization, meaning 11,000 people would potentially need hospital beds in Oregon. Oregon Health and Sciences University’s chief medical officer, Dr. Renee Edwards, said at a press conference Monday, March 16, that could actually be 20%.

OHSU and other Oregon hospital executives met with the governor the weekend of March 14-15. The health care providers intend to expand hospital bed capacity and the number of staff who can respond to the pandemic.

Portland’s four major hospital systems — Providence Health Systems, Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health and OHSU — will be working together to coordinate their response. The hospital executives hope to bring back recent retirees and reinforce their frontline staff with candidates now working outside hospitals.

Kaiser has postponed all elective surgeries, freeing up beds.

The Oregon Health Authority hopes that Brown’s emergency declarations limiting gatherings and closing schools will slow the virus’ spread. There are also expectations that testing for the coronavirus in Oregon will increase, giving public health officials a better understanding of the virus’ spread.

Edwards said the lack of capacity for widespread COVID-19 testing is hindering prevention. Since about 80% of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, they can infect others without knowing they had been sick.

Hence the need for social distancing.

“We are not talking anymore about stopping the spread of this virus,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, the public health officer for the tri-county region of Oregon’s Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, at a press conference earlier this month. “Without a vaccine and without medicine, our best bet as a community is to slow the spread so those who do get seriously ill can get the care they need from our health system.”

— Kristen Hannum, Ed Langlois, Katie Scott, Sarah Wolf

Learn more

The Archdiocese of Portland has gathered its communiques on COVID-19, plus information from trusted health sources, at one web page:

Basic steps to prevent spread of the coronavirus and other illnesses:

• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

• Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.

• Stay home if you feel ill.

Source: Oregon Health Authority