WASHINGTON — The pastor of a Catholic church who urged people not to “cower in fear” of the novel coronavirus has contracted the disease that it causes, prompting District of Columbia health officials to tell about 250 staff members and parishioners to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Msgr. Charles Pope, of Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Catholic Church, was hospitalized Monday while experiencing a high fever. He tested positive for the coronavirus after a rapid diagnostic test that afternoon.
On Friday, the D.C. Health Department issued a letter saying that “additional individuals have been identified as having been exposed to the virus.” Parishioners who last weekend participated in Communion at the church — the Catholic ritual of sharing wafers and wine or juice — were told to stay at home for 14 days and monitor themselves for symptoms.
City health officials did not respond to questions Sunday about whether they had contacted told parishioners and told them to quarantine before Friday, or whether other members of the church have tested positive for the virus.
The virus has surged in D.C., Maryland and Virginia in recent weeks, after declining sharply in June. Officials attribute the spike to the increase in gatherings after a prolonged shutdown this spring, and have expanded mask restrictions and urged people to maintain their distance from others, especially while indoors.
On Sunday, officials reported 69 new cases in D.C., 909 in Maryland and 981 in Virginia. The seven-day average in coronavirus-related fatalities rose to 31, up from 17 the week before.
Eight days before testing positive, Pope, 59, wrote an article in the National Catholic Register questioning the sweeping orders that public officials have issued to stem the spread of the virus, including limiting worship services.
“There is more to life than just not getting sick and not dying,” he wrote.
He told a religious radio show Monday morning that he thinks some parishioners who have chosen not to return to in-person services are “lukewarm” Catholics.
Even after being hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, Pope continued to urge followers not to be afraid of the disease. “I wonder, when will be the end game?” he said in a video message posted Saturday. “When will it be safe enough to play in the park again? That still remains my concern, even after having contracted this.”
Pope said Sunday that he has never violated city regulations on mask-wearing or social distancing nor urged his followers to do so. He wore a mask when speaking to congregants one-on-one, he said, and sanitized his hands with alcohol when providing Communion,
“Whenever I was told to wear a mask, I always did,” he said, adding that he stands by the perspective he shared on his blog and during sermons. “We are Christians, we believe that there’s a role for suffering. It’s not appropriate for a Christian to be afraid.”
Pope said he does not know how he caught the virus. He has since returned to the rectory after he went to the hospital, he said. He apologized for the “inconvenience” he had caused parishioners who were asked to quarantine.
Epidemiological research suggests that the coronavirus is significantly more lethal than the seasonal flu, with a fatality rate of about 6%. While the majority of people who are infected experience mild symptoms, it is a very contagious diseases that can cause a high death toll if allowed to spread to large sections of the population, experts say. In the wake of a dramatic surge in infections that has devastated parts of the West and the South, local and state officials are calling for a coordinated national shutdown of commercial and social activity.
Dawn Goldstein, a D.C. resident and member of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church who posted about Pope’s diagnosis on Twitter, said she felt “insulted” by the priest’s articles and speeches urging Catholics not to be afraid.
“He has used his platform to mock and ridicule Catholics who are taking precautions,” Goldstein, whose church is about a mile from Pope’s, said in an interview. “It’s so un-pastoral, so unlike a priest.”
Goldstein said she encountered Pope on June 6, a day of mass racial-justice protests in Washington, while he was leading a rosary procession with about 30 priests, nuns and congregants, most of whom were not wearing facial coverings.
Goldstein, who was distributing water and masks with other members of St. Joseph’s, said she offered Pope a mask but he declined — a decision she felt was irresponsible.
It was not mandatory at the time to wear facial coverings outdoors, though city officials had urged residents who were attending protests to do so.
Pope said he had a mask in his pocket during the procession but was not wearing it when Goldstein approached him. He called her criticisms a “grossly unfair accusation” of his behavior.
“When I say ‘do not be afraid,’ that is not to say, ‘be reckless,’ “ he said. “There’s a middle ground between afraid and reckless, and that’s prudence.”
D.C. posted a seven-day average of 71 new cases on Sunday, compared to an average of 33 new cases a day in early July.
While the current average is still far below the city’s peak of nearly 200 new infections a day in May, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, has already warned residents that she may tighten coronavirus-related restrictions and ordered visitors from most states to self-quarantine for two weeks when entering the city.
Baltimore City and Baltimore County — Maryland areas where new cases have soared to record highs in recent weeks — added 171 and 178 cases, respectively, on Sunday. Prince George’s County, where cases are again climbing rapidly after weeks of gradual inclines, added 137 new cases, while neighboring Montgomery added 93.
New cases in Virginia have started to decline after three weeks of surges that were fueled primarily by the Hampton Roads area. Virginia Beach on Sunday added 121 new infections, bringing its seven-day average to 107, down from 146 a week ago.