Deacon-physician says everyone can help limit spread of virus

Dr. Timothy P. Flanigan is seen in this undated photo. A Catholic deacon, he teaches medicine at Brown Medical School and is an infectious disease specialist, who says everyone can “play a key role” in decreasing the spread of the coronavirus. (CNS photo/courtesy Rhode Island Catholic)

By Rick Snizek Catholic News Service

PROVIDENCE — While the coronavirus has created an upheaval in the daily routines of people around the world, there are ways to minimize the spread of the illness, said a physician who serves as a deacon for the Diocese of Providence.

Dr. Timothy P. Flanigan, professor of medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University and a physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Miriam and Rhode Island Hospitals, said frequent hand-washing and social distancing can minimize transmission of the virus, also known as COVID-19.

He also urged people to take precautions when going to Sunday Mass. One practice as the coronavirus runs its course is for worshippers to stay separated by at least an arm’s length in church pews. People with any Illness, he said, should stay home.

The Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Providence, recently interviewed Deacon Flanigan about safe practices people can take wherever they are, not just in church. Deacon Flanigan’s responses have been edited for clarity:

Q: 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?

A: This novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, is 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 outmaneuver 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.

Q: 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?

A: We can all play a key role to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus and other respiratory infections. 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 arm’s 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. Instead, we have to adapt and smile twice as wide. Hand-washing or using hand sanitizers should become routine.

Q: What reassurances do you have for the community who see what is happening on the news with regard to quarantines and hospitalizations and fear that they may be the next to become ill? What should they do to stay healthy?

A: 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 there will not be significant transmission.

We are lucky because we can trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They have worked tirelessly on this. The work they do and the information they provide is more reliable than anything else you’ll find anywhere. They have my 100% trust. People should not hesitate to check them out online at

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 older than 75 years, are at much higher risk of severe infection and becoming very sick.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

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