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Did a Washington, DC Priest Expose Hundreds of Churchgoers to Coronavirus?

Facts and Myths about COVID-19 (COR...
Facts and Myths about COVID-19 (CORONAVIRUS)

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A Washington, DC clergyman tested positive for COVID-19, potentially exposing congregants.

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On March 9 2020, WJLA-TV reporter Sam Sweeney tweeted about a Washington, DC priest’s purported positive coronavirus (COVID-19) diagnosis, adding that the clergy man led Communion services and shook hands with “more than 500” churchgoers:

According to Sweeney’s tweet, the exposure to COVID-19 occurred during services on March 1 and February 24 2020. Sweeney added that churchgoers who attended services on those dates at Christ Church in Georgetown were ordered to “self-quarantine,” and that services there had been canceled for the first time in more than a century.

In a reply to a response to that tweet, Sweeney stated:

The Washington Post reported that the individual Sweeney referenced was Rev. Timothy Cole, the rector at Christ Church in Georgetown. In that article, the outlet indicated 550 congregants were potentially exposed to COVID-19 across multiple services on a single Sunday:

A third case of coronavirus in Northern Virginia was announced [March 9 2020], shortly after D.C. officials urged hundreds of Christ Church, Georgetown attendees to self-quarantine because of their exposure to the Rev. Timothy Cole, the church rector, who is the city’s first known coronavirus patient … Cole, who first became sick after returning from a Feb. 22 [2020] conference of Episcopal leaders in Louisville, tested positive for coronavirus Saturday and is quarantined at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in stable condition.

[…]

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced the self-quarantine recommendation at a news conference [on March 9 2020 in the] morning, as authorities try to contain the spread of the virus. It is the first broad self-quarantine order in the Washington region.

Cole oversaw multiple services on March 1 [2020], attended by a total of 550 people, the church has said. He provided Communion at the 11:15 a.m. services. Church officials said he appeared healthy that day and had been regularly washing his hands. But he had been ill in late February [2020].

There was no immediate estimate of how many people came into close contact with him on the other targeted days.

Bowser emphasized self-quarantine was crucial to stop the virus from spreading, adding that officials recognized that “there will be hardships for many people not just in D.C., but in Maryland and Virginia” due to the restriction. The newspaper also reported that Cole engaged in no recent international travel, visiting only the church conference in Kentucky on February 22 2020.

CBS News obtained a copy of the email issued to parishioners about Cole’s diagnosis:

In an email to parishioners obtained by CBS News, Cole confirmed he has tested positive, and said services were suspended “out of an abundance of caution for the most vulnerable among us.” All services were canceled Sunday, the first time the church has closed since a fire in the 1800s, [Reverend Crystal] Hardin said.

“I can now confirm that I am the individual who tested positive for the Coronavirus,” Cole wrote in his email. “First, I want to assure you that I will be okay. I am receiving excellent care and am in good spirits under the circumstances. I will remain quarantined for the next 14 days as will the rest of my family.”

CBS further reported that public health officials assessed the exposure risk posed by Cole, concluding that visiting the church was sufficient to warrant quarantine:

The D.C. Department of Health said in a statement that it has been in contact with the church and “determined an individual’s visitation to Christ Church Georgetown warrants precautionary measures.” The department recommended “a temporary pause of services” and said it was “conducting an intensive investigation to identify any exposures to COVID-19 that may have occurred at the church,” referring to the virus.

Anyone who visited the church under any circumstances or for any reason within a specific date range was affected by the self-quarantine. One outlet provided the dates as between February 28 2020 and March 3 2020; Bowser provided the longer range in a tweet:

In the March 9 2020 statement, DC Health clarified self-quarantine instructions:

Through DC Health’s investigation, in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all visitors to Christ Church, Georgetown Episcopal on February 24th, and between February 28th and March 3rd could have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19, and DC Health is recommending that anyone who visited Christ Church, Georgetown Episcopal on those dates isolate themselves at home for 14 days from the last time they visited the church. Isolating at home includes not going to work or school, and not attending any large or public gatherings, or using public transportation or ride-sharing. DC Health may also be reaching out to certain individuals who are more likely to have been exposed with further guidance.

Additionally, any person who has visited Christ Church, Georgetown Episcopal on the dates mentioned above, should call DC Health if they develop symptoms, or if they have experienced symptoms of COVID-19 in the 14 days since they visited the church at (202) 576-1117 or call their healthcare providers. Symptoms of COVID-19 may include fever, cough, and/or shortness of breath. If you have any questions and are not symptomatic, you can also email DC Health are [email protected]

On the Church’s official website, a link on the homepage led to a statement titled “Church Closure and Coronavirus,” which began:

Dear friends in Christ,

Many of you have been asking for additional guidance in light of today’s events. At 10:47 p.m., we received the following from DC Health. Please read it carefully and reach out to DC Health with your questions and concerns about their guidance.

We will continue to send updates periodically, upon receipt of new information and as warranted. Let us hold one another in prayer and rest assured of God’s presence and grace, which abounds—always.

Faithfully,

The Clergy and Wardens of Christ Church, Georgetown

Immediately thereafter was the statement from DC Health, and under that, Cole’s email to churchgoers:

IMPORTANT UPDATE: CORONAVIRUS IN OUR COMMUNITY
Sunday, March 8, 2020

Dear friends in Christ,

As you are now aware, we have suspended all services and meetings at Christ Church until further notice in response to a presumed positive case of Coronavirus in our community. As we said before, we did not make the decision to close our doors lightly, but out of an abundance of caution for the most vulnerable among us. There is no need to panic. Following sensible precautions provided by the CDC will go a long way towards insuring the good health of our community.

I can now confirm that I am the individual who tested positive for the Coronavirus.

First, I want to assure you that I will be okay. I am receiving excellent care and am in good spirits under the circumstances. I will remain quarantined for the next 14 days as will the rest of my family.

Many of you will want to speak by phone or email; however, at this time, rest is what I need most, and it will be difficult for me to respond. Should you have any situations requiring pastoral care, please do contact the Reverend Mother Crystal Hardin or the Reverend Father John McDuffie. For matters concerning operations of the church, please contact one of the Wardens, Chad Thorley or Rusty Lindner.

The obvious question at this point is what you should do. First, please read the information provided on the CDC’s website, linked here. If we are given any firm advice by public health officials, we will pass it to the Christ Church community as soon as possible. In the meantime, we have been asked to let parishioners know that should you experience any symptoms, please contact your healthcare provider.

Faithfully,

Father Tim

The Reverend Timothy A. R. Cole, Rector

A tweet reporting a large-scale quarantine mandate and coronavirus (COVID-19) case at a Washington, DC church because of an infected clergyman was accurate. Public health officials said that visitors who went to the church between February 24 and March 3 2020 may have been exposed to COVID-19. Parishioners were instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days, beginning with the date of possible exposure.