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After denying priest access to injured man, UMMS agrees to allow clergy to visit seriously ill during pandemic

The University of Maryland Medical System will allow clergy to visit hospital patients, including those with the coronavirus, during the ongoing pandemic, following a federal complaint last month claiming religious discrimination at its Prince George’s Hospital Center.

The amended policy at the university system’s 13 hospitals requires “adherence to safety protocols” and a signed waiver acknowledging the risk by all clergy and other visitors, according to UMMS spokeswoman Jania Matthews.

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The previous, stricter visitor policy had been developed in response to the pandemic, “with the intent to adjust restrictions as necessary,” she said.

“After we became aware of an issue regarding clergy visitation for a patient who was potentially nearing the end of their life, we engaged in extensive discussion with key stakeholders including legal counsel on how to best accommodate situations that require exceptions to our visitation policy while not compromising the safety of others,” Matthews said in a statement.

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“We have since amended our policy, with all individuals visiting a COVID-19 positive patient provided a form acknowledging the risk, and will allow clergy visits with adherence to safety protocols.”

Susanna Marcus filed the religious discrimination complaint in June, saying Prince George’s Hospital Center initially denied her request to allow a Catholic priest to visit her critically injured husband, Sidney Marcus, as his health declined in the intensive care unit following a major car accident, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a news release.

Despite being willing to wear any necessary personal protective equipment, the priest was turned away based on a visitor exclusion policy the hospital system had adopted in response to the coronavirus, the department said.

Susanna Marcus could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Prince George’s Hospital Center allowed the priest to visit Marcus and perform the Catholic sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick after federal health officials contacted UMMS about the matter, and the hospital system changed its policy to resolve the complaint, the department said.

The health department announced the outcome of the case and the amended policy in a news release Tuesday.

“The Trump Administration has made it a priority to defend Americans’ right to practice their faith, at all times and especially during this pandemic,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. “As our work with the University of Maryland Medical System shows, we can deliver healthcare, combat COVID-19, and protect religious freedom all at the same time.”

It’s unclear whether the other major hospital systems in Baltimore are adjusting their religious visitation policies. Spokespeople for Johns Hopkins, LifeBridge Health and MedStar Health did not respond Tuesday afternoon to requests for comment.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidance says hospitals “must ensure patients have adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy.”

The new UMMS policy now allows for clergy visits in “in compassionate care situations including end-of-life,” according to the U.S. health department.

“Patients in non-COVID units may freely exercise their religion by receiving clergy visitation at any reasonable time, as long as the visit does not disrupt clinical care,” the department said in its release.

As of Tuesday, more than 600,000 people worldwide have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

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The pandemic prompted stay-at-home orders in Maryland and most other states; canceled all major gatherings; prompted hospitals to not allow families to visit sick or dying loved ones; and even postponed weddings and funerals.

The Trump administration announced the expanded religious visitation policy one day after health officers from Maryland’s five largest counties and Baltimore City asked the state health department to renew restrictions on bars, restaurants and other establishments to curb a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

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