When asked if ministering to patients with the coronavirus (COVID-19) at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Ventura and St. John’s Hospital in Camarillo was different from other patients, chaplains Father Calin Tamiian and Veronica Marchese needed a moment to explain.

“Yes and no at the same time,” Father Tamiian answered during a teleconference interview. The coronavirus, he explained, is just one of the types of contagious diseases that chaplains are trained to confront in their field of ministry.

But for the 45-year-old Eastern Rite Catholic priest, one of the most important parts of chaplaincy is “the feeling touch of the ministry.”

“That hand on the shoulder that you see in hospitals, that is not available now….

Father Tamiian, who has been a chaplain for almost 20 years (18 of them at the St. John’s Hospitals in Ventura County), has seen how every hospitalization takes individuals out of the regular environment and into an enclosed community of strangers.

But what’s especially alarming for coronavirus patients is that they are  immediately put into isolation. To make matters more ominous, the way the men and women who attend to them are outfitted — wearing hooded protective gowns, goggles, masks, gloves, and a clear plastic shield protecting their faces — often resembles something out of a Star Wars movie….

“How about you, Veronica?” the chaplain asked his colleague.

“There’s a lot of stress on families right now,” Marchese replied. “At this point, we’re being very careful, utilizing the phone to support them instead of having face-to-face conversations because they can’t come into the hospital, where before, families would be able to be here all day long at the bedside of their loved one….”

While there are still 13 chaplains on staff, covering the two hospitals, the 70-some volunteers who normally worked with them can no longer go inside the facilities, including the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion who bring Communion to patients on different wards. So staff chaplains are pulling long hours ministering to incoming COVID-19 cases as well as regular patients….

Father Chris Ponnet has been a chaplain at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, commonly known as “County” among locals, for 25 years. The hospital near East LA has seen COVID-19 patients “from the beginning” of the virus’ arrival to Southern California roughly two months ago. But in the last month, he has seen the number of patients at the hospital, which serves some of LA’s poorest, actually decrease.

As of mid-April, the hospital was still in “triage mode” in preparation for a surge of COVID-19 patients. “Administrators have been sending regular patients not infected to other hospitals like the boat in the harbor,” he explained.

Still, priests and hospital staff have found ways to provide anointing and confessions as needed to patients, Father Ponnet said.

“With anointings, we would normally just go right into a room. I did a couple with COVID-19 cases early on. But then as we’ve moved along, we’re more and more doing that virtually. So we stand outside the room: pray with the person over the phone, and we’re hoping soon to move that to iPads so that the visualization will be better.”

But if the person is dying, the “last rites” and the anointing of the sick are still administered while taking precautions. Father Ponnet and the other chaplains wear a gown, gloves, masks, and goggles, with a clear plastic shield around their faces. Then they pour some of the consecrated oil on a tissue and anoint the person’s forehead (the tissue is destroyed soon after). Ordinarily, chaplains would pour a little oil on a finger and then anoint the person….

The above comes from an April 22 story in Angelus News.