Catholic diocese worked with HHS to get priests to COVID patients

shutterstock 1716116671 Department of Health and Human Services at the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building. | Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock

The Diocese of Arlington helped intervene on behalf of a dying COVID patient when he needed a priest to offer him the sacraments, the Department of Health and Human Services said on Tuesday.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Roger Severino-director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS-announced that the office had resolved two religious discrimination complaints concerning lack of access to Catholic priests at hospitals during the pandemic.

One of the two cases was at Mary Washington Healthcare hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the Arlington diocese. Family of a COVID-positive patient who was dying requested a Catholic priest to visit and administer the Last Rites, which usually include the sacraments of anointing and confession, and receiving the viaticum, but the hospital allegedly denied the request due to its coronavirus visitation policies.

In August, the Arlington diocese notified the OCR's Conscience and Religious Freedom Division (CRFD), which in turn contacted the hospital.

A priest was allowed inside the hospital to visit the patient before their death, the diocese confirmed to CNA on Tuesday.

"Understanding the many competing interests a hospital must balance, particularly during a pandemic, the ability of a patient to exercise his/her religious freedom at such an important time must remain central, as long as reasonable precautions are taken by the cleric," a spokesperson for the diocese told CNA in a statement.

"We are pleased the situation ultimately worked out well and now serves as a model to the country."

Shortly after that, HHS says that the diocese again reached out about another case at the hospital where a Catholic patient in the intensive care unit had just received surgery but was denied access to a priest due to the hospital's policy of treating the ICU ward as a COVID-positive area, barring outside visitors except in end-of-life cases.  

Severino said on Tuesday that, after his office reached out to the hospital, the hospital updated their policy to allow for clergy visits to COVID-positive patients in end-of-life situations, so long as clergy wear proper equipment and undergo infection control training.

If the urgency of a situation precludes the training, then clergy can still visit the patient but must self-quarantine for 14 days afterward. Clergy can visit non-COVID units upon request "at any reasonable time," HHS said.

"As we work as hard as we can to save as many lives as possible, we must not forget what many people live for," Severino said of faith and religious practice. "You can safely treat the patient without neglecting the whole patient-that's mind, body, and soul."

The resolution was a "reasonable balancing" of the "urgency of the situation" with the advice of infectious disease specialists, Severino said.

In another case in Maryland, a mother who gave birth at Southern Maryland Hospital tested positive for coronavirus and was separated from her newborn baby, per the hospital's policy. She asked for a Catholic priest to baptize the child, but the hospital denied her request due to its visitor policy during the pandemic.

Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that the mother and doctor should decide the question of her separation from her child if she tests positive for the coronavirus or is suspected of having it.

HHS also intervened in that case, and the MedStar Health System produced a new policy for its ten hospitals. Under the new policy, patients in both COVID-positive and non-COVID units can request a clerical visit so long as it "does not disrupt care."

In a second case in Maryland, the University of Maryland Medical System adjusted its clergy-visitation policies this summer after the OCR reached out; a Catholic woman had requested a priest to give the sacraments to her critically-injured husband at Prince George's Hospital Center, but was denied because he was not at the point of death.

The resolution announced Tuesday "balances the safety of patients with the right of patients to have clergy visitation, even during a pandemic," Severino said.

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Due to the contagious and deadly nature of the virus, some hospitals have set up strict visitor policies during the pandemic that have included even family members not being able to visit their loved ones in intensive care units or wards where COVID-positive patients were being cared for.

The HHS OCR helped resolve another case in Connecticut of a woman with aphasia being able to have her advocate inside the hospital while she was being treated.  

"We've heard too many heart-wrenching stories of people literally dying alone during this crisis," Severino said in June.

In an HHS March bulletin, OCR instructed hospitals and other health care providers to respect "requests for religious accommodations in treatment and access to clergy or faith practices as practicable."

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