A tightening of some hospital visitor restrictions on religious ministers and patient family members has begun as the coronavirus pandemic ramps up around the U.S.

“It has been about two weeks — it started out with a limit on the times ministers or family members could come in, then a week later they completely stopped it,” said Maria Arvonio, a night-shift nursing supervisor for a large community hospital near Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and the lower Northeastern regional director of the Chicago-based National Association of Catholic Nurses.

Catholic nurses, Arvonio noted, are now often the only spiritual connection for those in their care.

“The patients can make phone calls, but eucharistic ministers, volunteers and family are not allowed to visit at this time, so Catholic nurses are the only Catholic lifeline to their spirituality,” Arvonio said, adding that historically the Church has encouraged strong collegial associations of Catholic nurses.

The Joint Commission, an organization that accredits and certifies over 22,000 health care organizations in the U.S., likewise acknowledges that offering spiritual care to patients is vital toward supporting their health.

“In my opinion, we are the hands and feet of Christ ministering God’s love and healing to our patients, especially now more than ever since patients are unable to receive the Eucharist and spiritual care” offered by extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, Arvonio said, adding the patient disconnect with family members can lead to anxiety and fear of the virus.

Arvonio has participated in United Nations congresses under the auspices of the International Catholic Committee of Nurses and Medico-Social Assistants, which serves as a nongovernmental organization with consultative status.

It is well-accepted that a patient’s faith and spiritual beliefs can affect their healing process and that is why it is imperative that nurses are culturally competent — to be aware of patients’ belief systems in order to support their healing process, according to Arvonio.

“It is even more so now that we pray with and for our patients,” she told Catholic News Service.

“Right now patients don’t have their family members present — at my facility that stopped two weeks prior to the official government order,” she said. “Instead, hospitals are suggesting using cellphones and Facetime platforms with family.”

But how many elderly people can really do that well with electronic communications?

Arvonio said it is during hospital night hours especially, when lonely and often elderly patients feel vulnerable and want someone to talk to, that they open up to the nursing staff.

“At night when I am (working), that nurse at the bedside is really important because the patient has time to think about what they have done over their lifetime. We have to be ready for that,” Arvonio said.

“You should see the eyes of some patients, they are lonely and there is such fear. They don’t have their family there, and they are worried for their family and the family are worried for them.”

Arvonio said medical professionals are concerned if they are potentially exposing themselves and their families to the often-deadly coronavirus. She said nurses must practice universal protection for every patient — but that isn’t always sufficient for some contagious diseases that are not confirmed until test results return.

“Not knowing what this (COVID-19) disease process is, every day hearing something different on the news from one extreme to the next — honestly, without my faith I would not be able to walk in there,” she said.

In the coming days, Arvonio hopes to conduct an online training and mutual support forum for other Catholic nurses who are association members and include one or two clergy, and hopes the association’s regional directors will do the same thing in other parts of the country.

“When you are out there by yourself, you are a sitting duck, but when you are in the circle with the Blessed Mother and with your colleagues, you are safe; if we stay strong in the sacramentals and watch the Mass online, we can do this,” she said.

“This is a time not to listen too much to the news but stand on the word of God, to give glory to Him and encourage nurses to stay close to God,” Arvonio added.

—Tom Tracy