By Colleen Rowan

WEST VIRGINIA—As Covid cases continue to surge in West Virginia, Bishop Mark E. Brennan is asking that masks be worn in all churches of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The announcement was made Aug. 25. That afternoon, pastors and parishes were asked to place a sign with the following or similar message at each entrance of their churches: “Until further notice, Bishop Brennan asks that all those in attendance at Mass wear a mask, other than young children under the age of 2. “Thank you for your cooperation in this act of Christian Charity.” The bishop asked that the signs be placed before this weekend’s Masses and encouraged pastors and parishes to share the message through their communication channels, including the parish bulletins, announcements, social media, and websites. They began posting the message on their social media sites that evening. That same day, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) reported that as of Aug. 25, there are 11,725 active Covid cases in the state. In his press briefing also that same day, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announcned that this is an increase of 1,182 from the case total during his previous briefing and the state’s highest number of active cases since Feb. 13. The Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to catalyze this latest surge, a press release from the governor’s office stated. The Aug. 25 release also reported that there are now 554 confirmed cases of the Delta variant statewide, and that 511 West Virginians are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. This marks the first time since late-January that the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations has surpassed 500, the press release noted. The release also reported that of the patients currently hospitalized, 171 are in the ICU and 74 are on ventilators. Both of these numbers continue to rapidly approach the all-time records in West Virginia, the release said. On the West Virginia County Alert System, 24 counties are red and 27 are orange. Just a week before the announcement of asking all to wear masks in churches, Bishop Brennan wrote to the priests and deacons of the diocese concerning the state’s Covid surge. “As the incidences of new Coronavirus infections sharply increase in West Virginia, I am concerned about the safety of our people coming to Mass,” Bishop Brennan wrote Aug. 17. “We had an admirable track record earlier in the pandemic, with no known outbreaks of the virus traceable to any Catholic Mass in the diocese.” In the letter, which was posted on the diocese’s social media, Bishop Brennan said that priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion must both sanitize their hands before distributing the Body of Christ and wear masks while distributing the sacrament. They must also sanitize their hands after giving Holy Communion to a person on the tongue before giving the sacrament to the next communicant. Bishop Brennan said at that time that priests and deacons should wear masks. But the surge of Covid cases in West Virginia brought the bishop to make the decision this week of asking that masks be worn by everyone in churches. In the letter, Bishop Brennan also asked priests and deacons to continue to sanitize their churches at least once per day. “With these safety measures in place,” he wrote, “it would seem that physical distancing and skipping every other pew would not be necessary, but local discretion is appropriate in the matter.” The diocese, he said, will continue to monitor the situation. “I hope these measures will enable us to celebrate the Eucharist together in safety,” the bishop wrote in his letter. “May God hear our prayers to bring this pandemic to a swift end and spare us the loss of more lives and the serious illness of others.”

Colleen Rowan Photo

Bishop Mark E. Brennan offers the final blessing at the Mass celebrating the 95th anniversary of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling in April. Bishop Brennan asks that all wear masks in all of the diocese’s churches. The announcement was made Aug. 25.