N.D. health department says Grand Forks church exposed to hepatitis AThough the probability is relatively low, parishioners at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Grand Forks may have been exposed to the hepatitis A virus during a September Mass in which Bishop John Folda participated in communion.
By: Tu-Uyen Tran, Grand Forks Herald
Though the probability is relatively low, parishioners at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Grand Forks may have been exposed to the hepatitis A virus during a September Mass in which Bishop John Folda participated in communion.
The state Health Department on Friday added the church to a list of four others in Fargo and Jamestown, N.D., where it said parishioners could have been exposed because one individual had been infected with the virus.
It did not identify the individual, but the Fargo diocese confirmed Thursday the individual was the bishop, who contracted hepatitis A after eating contaminated food while visiting Italy in September.
Molly Howell, the Health Department’s immunization program manager, said the risk of infection is very low simply because many people wash their hands, which eliminates the virus. The department doesn’t know if the bishop washed his hands or not, though, she said.
The Rev. Gerard Braun, the pastor at St. Michael’s said he assumes the bishop did because “it’s just good hygiene.”
Folda would have been one of four priests participating in communion at the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sept. 29, Braun said, estimating that 50 to 70 parishioners would have received communion from the bishop.
So far, he said, none have complained of symptoms. “Nor do I suspect that they will.”
Priests will discuss the matter with their congregations on Sunday, he said.
On Friday, Folda released a statement about his illness and apologized for unknowingly exposing parishioners to hepatitis A.
“I am now feeling much better and am getting back to a regular schedule,” he said. “According to my physician and facts known about this illness, I am no longer contagious and haven’t been for some time.”
The diocese said he returned from Italy on Sept. 20. The Health Department’s timeline indicates he participated in Mass at Holy Spirit Church in Fargo on Sept. 27 followed by Mass at St. Michael’s on Sept. 29. He attended a priests’ convention in Jamestown from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, participated in Mass on Oct. 6 and 7 at two more Fargo churches.
“I sincerely apologize to the people who may have been exposed to the virus,” Folda said in the statement. “I wish I had known I was ill so I could immediately refrain from participating in public activities. Unfortunately, I had no symptoms immediately following my return and during the events that have been brought to the public’s attention. I am praying that no one else becomes ill.”
According to the Health Department, hepatitis A is found in human feces, spreading when people fail to wash their hands thoroughly after using the toilet or changing diapers and then touching their own mouths, preparing food for others or touching others.
Communion is a rite during Mass at Catholic and certain other churches in which priests consecrate wafers and wine and offer them for consumption. The Health Department was specific about issuing its warning only to those receiving communion, not just those attending Mass.
Most likely an infected person would spread the disease two weeks before the onset of symptoms, which includes fever, nausea, abdominal discomfort, dark urine, pale feces or yellowing skin and eyes, the department said.
After the symptoms are gone, most people are no longer contagious.
It takes 15 to 50 days from exposure before symptoms appear, and it’s been about a month since Bishop Folda was at St. Michael’s.
Howell said that hepatitis A is uncommon in North Dakota because of the availability in recent years of vaccines, which are routinely given to children. “Back in the 90s we’d get 150 cases a year. In 2013, we’ve had only six cases.”
Vaccines are available at Grand Forks Public Health, and it’s available to anyone who wants it, according to nurse Debbie Swanson. But she said she doesn’t recommend it because the vaccines will only protect from future infections.
For now, she said, those who think they might have been exposed should just watch for symptoms and visit a doctor as needed.
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