Coronavirus: Auckland Bishop says don't 'fear' going to mass as other gatherings cancelled

The Catholic Bishop of Auckland says churchgoers shouldn't fear going to mass despite a newly-confirmed coronavirus patient attending a service last Sunday.

The Ministry of Health confirmed New Zealand's sixth case of coronavirus COVID-19 on Saturday, putting an end to a six-day stretch of no cases. The confirmed patient is in his 60s and recently returned from travel to the United States, which has nearly 2000 recorded cases.

It took three days after the man arrived back in New Zealand for him to become unwell and then be assessed for the virus. However, before then, he attended an 8:30am service last Sunday at St Mary's church in East St, Papakuru. 

All those who attended will be contacted, but the majority will be advised they don't need to self-isolate as they didn't come into close contact with the man. 

The Catholic Bishop of Auckland, Patrick Dunn, has now told churchgoers to be vigilant, but not overly concerned about going to any service. 

"Nobody should fear going to mass," said Bishop Dunn.

"Our best advice is that the chance of catching any illness in mass is very low, especially if you heed the standard health advice to wash your hands, avoid close contact with anyone who is ill, and stay at home if you feel ill yourself."

He said as the infected individual wasn't showing symptoms at the time, there was a low risk of the virus being passed along. Coronavirus is primarily spread through droplets in the air after someone sneezes or coughs. However, it can also be contracted by touching surfaces where the illness is present, according to the World Health Organization.

Church services across Italy have been cancelled after the country, which has more than 11,000 cases, went into lockdown earlier this week. New Zealand has cancelled many mass gatherings out of concern for possible transmission, including Auckland's Pasifika and the Christchurch Remembrance Service on Sunday. Various concerts and sporting events also won't go ahead.

Following advice from the Ministry of Health, Bishop Dunn said the Catholic Church throughout New Zealand had stopped using shared holy water from fonts, communion on the tongue or from the chalice, and shaking hands at the Sign of Peace during mass. 

Services scheduled for 5pm on Saturday and then 8:30am and 10:30am on Sunday would go ahead as normal.

The sixth confirmed case, the first to have recently visited the United States, is now in self-isolation at home as hospital treatment was not required. His partner is also in isolation, while family has been contacted.

The WHO was first informed of cases of the virus in Wuhan on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread through human-to-human transmission. There are now just under 145,000 cases worldwide, with 5400 deaths.

"Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death," the WHO says.

"Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing."

There is currently no vaccine for the sickness.

How can I protect myself? 

  • avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands
  • washing your hands before eating
  • carrying a hand sanitiser at all times
  • being particularly mindful of touching your face after using public transport or going to the airport
  • carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)
  • not eating shared or communal food
  • avoiding shaking hands, kissing cheeks
  • regularly cleaning and sanitise commonly used surfaces and items, such as phones and keys
  • avoiding close contact with people suffering from or showing symptoms of acute respiratory infection
  • seeking medical attention if you feel unwell.

A full explainer on protecting yourself from coronavirus can be found here.

The Ministry of Health is reminding the public to get in touch with Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if they have symptoms or concerns.