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In another locked down, disrupted Easter, a tired Italy can’t escape the virus

At scaled down Easter services on April 4, Pope Francis called for an end to armed conflicts and urged countries to ramp up coronavirus vaccine distribution. (Video: Reuters)

ROME — In one Italian diocese, three priests contracted the coronavirus in the days leading up to Easter, forcing 10 other clerics to isolate. In another diocese, an infection has pushed 15 priests into isolation. At a parish 20 miles southeast of Rome, both of the priests got sick, forcing the cancellation of days of proceedings, including Easter Mass.

“There will be no celebration,” one parishioner said in an audio message sent to the community.

This was supposed to be the point when Europe had beaten back the virus, allowing a return to semi-normalcy for Catholicism’s holiest week. But Italy, like much of Europe, is still besieged by infections, and the Easter mood this year feels nowhere near celebratory. Whether through lockdowns, sickness or canceled church ceremonies, the pandemic is still finding ways to interfere.

“There is a psychological sense of tiredness,” said Bishop Domenico Pompili, who scrambled to reorganize Masses because of infected clerics. “We never could have imagined such a perennial state of uncertainty.”

While its AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccinations are suspended, Europe is confronting a third wave

For Catholics across the world, this is the second Easter taking place amid the pandemic. And while the endpoint is emerging in a few countries that have raced ahead with vaccinations, such as the United States, the picture is different in Europe, where the vaccine rollout has been dismally slow and half the continent’s nations are in some form of lockdown.

That has made this strange Easter perhaps even harder to stomach than the last one. While the collective sense of fear has diminished, people are contending instead with disillusionment, economic pain and continued isolation. Restrictions aren’t nearly as strict as those a year ago — in part because people know more about what behaviors are riskiest — but holidays still come with a laundry list of confusing rules. In Italy, two adults can visit family or friends; three cannot.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, noting the surge in infections, said Easter this year should be “quiet.” In Paris, thousands of officers were deployed to enforce new restrictions, including a ban on movement of more than six miles from home.

“People are so tired,” Beatrice Paparo, 28, said in Rome, where people this weekend were lining up for rapid tests in preparation to see relatives — provided they live in the same region. But Paparo’s parents live in another region, and domestic border-crossing is still banned.

“So we’ll be alone,” said Paparo, who was planning a meal with her boyfriend. “For a second year.”

“This year, at least we can walk around” the city, her boyfriend, Lorenzo Piscitelli, 29, said. “But we’ll still be separated.”

Pope Francis on April 3 led an Easter Vigil attended by only about 200 people in a secondary altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, scaled down due to the pandemic. The service began two hours earlier than usual so that participants could get home before a 10 p.m. curfew in Rome. (Video: Reuters)

At the Vatican, where Pope Francis normally delivers his Easter address to a teeming crowd of pilgrims, the pontiff instead spoke inside St. Peter’s Basilica to a much smaller, distanced crowd.

“The Easter message does not offer us a mirage or reveal a magic formula,” the pope said. “It does not point to an escape from the difficult situation we are experiencing. The pandemic is still spreading, while the social and economic crisis remains severe.”

He called vaccines “an essential tool in this fight” and urged nations “to commit to overcoming delays in the distribution of vaccines and to facilitate their distribution, especially in the poorest countries.”

Churches across Italy were open for Easter Sunday — one difference from last year — but now that a deadlier and more transmissible variant has gained dominance across the continent, risks remain high. The European Union’s death rate is now more than twice as high as that of the United States. In Italy, the number of patients in intensive care beds is higher than when the country began its vaccine rollout three months ago.

And the toll has taken many forms. In Saturday’s La Repubblica newspaper, a front-page headline reported that Easter-related consumption was down 40 percent compared with that of 2019. Another major newspaper, La Stampa, showed video of food bank lines, winding down the blocks of Milan.

“We all have experienced frailty. This is a fact,” said the Rev. Gabriele Cimarelli, a missionary priest in the city of Parma.

The community of Xaverian missionaries where Cimarelli lives was particularly devastated. Last year, during the initial wave, 18 members — around one-third of the religious community — died. Cimarelli got sick and survived, but only after experiencing oxygen deprivation and delirium.

This year, shortly before Easter, Cimarelli said, the surviving missionaries held a memorial Mass. Their intention had been to invite family members of the dead, but coronavirus restrictions made it impossible.

“It’s not allowed for people from other regions and towns to come here,” Cimarelli said. “So, it was a partial commemoration.”

He said Easter, with its message of renewal, made him feel a little hope. He’d been vaccinated — as had the other survivors.

“We need to look to the future,” Cimarelli said. “But we won’t be as we used to.”

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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