Coronavirus a concern for CRS health workers

A woman wearing a mask is seen at a subway station in Shanghai Feb. 13, 2020, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the coronavirus. Around the world, people are paying close attention to the coronavirus, which has infected more than 64,000 people and killed at least 1,383 as of Feb. 14. (CNS photo/Aly Song, Reuters) See CORONAVIRUS-EBOLA-CRS Feb. 14, 2020.

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The coronavirus has the world’s attention.

The disease, which surfaced in China last year, has infected more than 64,000 people and killed at least 1,383 by mid-February. It has spread to 24 countries and been labeled a global health emergency by the World Health Organization.

Suzanne Van Hulle, the global public health expert for Catholic Relief Services, is paying particularly close attention to the spread of the virus, also called COVID-19, to ensure CRS staff members in Asia are safe.

She said she and other CRS officials are monitoring the situation on a daily basis to see where new cases are showing up and would be willing to adjust programming so that staff members are not in contact with the deadly virus.

“We are tracking the outbreak closely,” she told Catholic News Service Feb. 14 from her Washington office.

CRS, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, has programs across Asia but no staff members in China. They have a regional office in Cambodia.

For now, the agency is encouraging employees to be vigilant about hand-washing and to monitor their own symptoms, particularly if they have been near anyone exhibiting signs of the virus.

CRS also has urged its employees in Asia to wear protective masks or clothing if they wish and also not to go to that region if they don’t want to. “We encourage our staff to feel safe,” she said.

In a joint statement issued Feb. 18, three U.S. Catholic leaders expressed solidarity and prayers “for those impacted or working to treat those infected by the disease.” Signing the statement were Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace; Sean Callahan, CRS president; and Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States.

“We offer our prayers for healing and support those organizations, both domestic and international, working to provide medical supplies and assistance to address this serious risk to public health,” the leaders said.

They commended the U.S. government for transporting more than 17 tons of donated medical supplies to China, saying it demonstrated “the critical importance of the need to work together and to invest in crucial health care systems here and in other countries.” The group also urged Congress to protect access to domestic health care safety-net programs and provide additional emergency international assistance to areas impacted by the virus.

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