Washington Catholic priest is first in US known to be diagnosed with coronavirus

Fr Alex Trejo Fr. Alejandro Trejo. Diocese of Yakima.

A priest in the Diocese of Yakima, Washington, is the first U.S. priest known to be diagnosed with COVID-19, the coronavirus that has become a global pandemic.

Fr. Alejandro Trejo, pastor of Our Lady of the Desert parish in Mattawa, was struck with a high fever March 1, and began on that date to self-quarantine. On March 7 he was admitted to a hospital with the symptoms of pneumonia. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 this weekend.

"Father Alex continues to recover well and we are appreciative of the prayers of many, many parishioners, and the excellent care of the hospital staff," Bishop Joseph Tyson said in a diocesan statement March 15.

"We also are very thankful for the work of the Grant County Health District," he said. The diocese has worked closely with the district to identify those with whom the priest has been in close contact for the past month. Two tests earlier this week were inconclusive. A third test requested by the district was positive, the Diocese learned late last night," he added.

In February, the priest made an eight-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, returning Feb. 18 to the U.S. Those who were on the pilgrimage have been contacted by public health officials.

Before Trejo was diagnosed, the Diocese of Yakima took precautionary measures, initiating a deep cleaning of the parish church, classrooms, and rectory, and working with Grant County Health District officials to identify those who might have come into close contact with the priest.

Trejo, 48, has been kept in an isolation unit. Bishop Tyson has visited the priest twice, wearing protective medical gear to avoid infection. The bishop plans to visit him again Sunday. Trejo is expected to be released within the week to continue his recovery in a private residence.

In the Diocese of Yakima, Trejo has served as pastor to several parishes, and assisted with the formation of permanent deacons and with RCIA in the diocese.

Trejo has been pastor of Our Lady of the Desert since 2016; Mattawa is a small central Washington community along the east side of the Columbia River. The area has sizable populations of migrant farm laborers.

"Mattawa is a close-knit community, and the parish is the center of many people's lives," Tyson said.

"The parish church is small and usually filled to overflowing, especially at the Spanish Masses," the bishop noted.

Tyson met with parish leaders Saturday to discuss the possibility of a positive coronavirus diagnosis.

Trejo, ordained in 2003, is a native of Mexico City, and became a U.S. citizen eight years ago.

After Washington's governor prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people in the state, public Masses were suspended across the Diocese of Yakima this weekend; that suspension is expected to continue indefinitely.

The state of Washington has been the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.; the first known U.S. case of the virus was announced Jan. 21 in the state. Since that time, more than 600 people in the state have been diagnosed with the virus, and at least 40 have died. Most of those infections have been documented in the Seattle metropolitan area; roughly 150 miles from Mattawa.

At least one priest in Italy has died of coronavirus, and local media reports that six others may also have died. Earlier this month, a French priest was hospitalized with coronavirus, and last week a priest in Peru was among the first patients to be hospitalized for coronavirus in that country.

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