Catholic deacon, infectious disease specialist offers his expertise on dealing with the COVID-19 coronavirus

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Rhode Island Catholic Executive Editor Rick Snizek interviewed Dr. Timothy P. Flanigan, M.D., a deacon in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, who serves as a professor of medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University — as well as a physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Miram and Rhode Island Hospitals — about the best ways, in matters of health and faith, to deal with the developing strain of coronavirus known as COVID-19.
In 2014, Dr. Flanigan, who serves as a deacon at St. Theresa and St. Christopher Parishes in Tiverton, Rhode Island, spent two months in the West African nation of Liberia helping to train healthcare teams at hospitals and clinics in the capital Monrovia who treated upwards of 7,000 patients infected with the Ebola virus.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and flow:

RICK SNIZEK: Compared to the annual flu strains and other types of infectious diseases you have treated, how does COVID-19 rank for you as a disease specialist?

DR. FLANIGAN: This novel coronavirus, or Covid-19, is now here in so many communities in the United States and we have a number of cases identified in Rhode Island related to transmission here in this country. We have faced serious threats like this before. We know how this virus is spread. And we can all play a key role to decrease the spread. This novel coronavirus is spread just like other respiratory viruses including influenza. When a person is infected they sneeze or cough and then those little droplets get on the hands and then we shake hands with other people who then touch their mouth or nose. These viruses are adapted so that they enter through our mucous membranes. They do not enter through intact skin.
Outbreaks of new strains of respiratory viruses have occurred before. This viral epidemic unfortunately is a globetrotter and is spreading much faster now because we are more of a global community. We will get through this, but we will need to support each other more. Often the “blame game” gets ramped up. Everyone wants to know who is at fault. This is a mistake. These viruses are very witty and can out maneuver us quickly. The good news is that we have our immune system and we will navigate this, although there will be significant chaos, disruption and suffering for those that become ill and for their family members. Now is the time to put differences aside and help each other out with a smile, but not with a handshake (he smiles).

RICK SNIZEK: What advice for prevention have you shared with members of your own family and others to stay healthy during the onset of this most recent virus?

DR. FLANIGAN: We can all play a key role to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus and other respiratory infections during this challenging time. If you have a respiratory infection with sneezing, cough and possibly fever, then stay at home till you’re better. If family members or friends are sick with a respiratory infection, then keep your distance, which is at least one arms-length, but you can still visit and talk to them from a distance and drop off food and cheer them up and help them out. We have to forgo handshakes, hugs, kisses on the cheek and other signs of affection which we love so much. Instead, we have to adapt and smile twice as wide and our affection has to be shown in the wrinkles in our eyes when we smile more. Handwashing or using hand sanitizers should become routine.

RICK SNIZEK: What reassurances do you wish to convey to members of the community who see what is happening on the news with regard to quarantines and hospitalizations around the world and fear that they may be the next to become ill? What should they do to stay healthy?

DR. FLANIGAN: It’s easy to become anxious and paranoid about surfaces. How do you know you can’t get infected from touching the pew while you’re in church? The vast majority of infection is spread person to person and not through contact. It is true that if you sneeze or cough on a surface, and then immediately touch it, then you can spread the virus. But when the surface dries out then there will not be significant transmission. Most transmission occurs person to person. We are lucky because we can trust the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). They have worked tirelessly on this. I’ve known them for over 30 years in the midst of multiple epidemics. There are times they are bureaucratic, but the work they do and the information they provide is more reliable than anything else you’ll find anywhere. They have my 100 percent trust. People should not hesitate to check them out online at CDC.gov.
The Rhode Island Department of Health works very closely with the CDC regarding decisions on closing schools, which is a measure only used when they are concerned about a direct outbreak. They will give guidance. School communities are an ideal place to practice social distancing, cough hygiene and the change in day-to-day practices to decrease the spread of respiratory infections. This virus does not cause much illness in children and younger people. This is very encouraging. On the other side of the coin, the elderly, particularly those over the age of 75 years old, are at much higher risk of severe infection and becoming very sick.

RICK SNIZEK: Should large gatherings, such as weekend Masses in particular, be avoided if more positive cases are identified locally? How best should the faithful continue to receive the sacraments?

DR. FLANIGAN: Keeping our churches and schools open is a very high priority. Life should go on. We have to keep calm and carry on. We all play key roles in our families, in our communities, and in our work. We can all go to Mass safely. One way to decrease spread of the epidemic is not to go into places where there’s huge crowding where people are pushed together in very close spaces. This is not the case for our churches. When I look out every Sunday, the centers of all of our pews are empty. There’s plenty of room for all of us to go to church and keep a reasonable distance. We should not shake hands during the sign a peace, but should give each other a huge smile. Feel free to wave. This is a good time to forgo receiving Communion from the chalice. We can all cross ourselves when we enter and leave church without dipping our finger in holy water that is shared by everyone.

RICK SNIZEK: What role should faith play in helping people stay focused and healthy, and minimize unproductive fear and anxiety during such times? How does your faith help you to meet the challenges you face as a medical professional?

DR. FLANIGAN: Many of us feel that we are alone. We do not have close friends or family. When we become overwhelmed with the challenges of Covid-19 we should spend a few moments in silence and realize that Jesus is with us. He was alone while he suffered his death on the cross, except for Mary and John who were at his side. Jesus suffered so that we are never alone in our suffering. He carries our cross with us. He will never desert us. When we feel like giving up and are overwhelmed by fear, we should look to the face of Jesus and put ourselves in his hands. He will help us carry on when we feel that we cannot.