(Updated 26/3/20 19:33 CET: below)

The Vatican has defended its decision to keep its offices open amid the COVID-19 outbreak after 3 workers tested positive for the disease.

– Holy See coronavirus cases rise to four

In a statement this afternoon, Holy See spokesman Matteo Bruni reported that the number of coronavirus cases in the tiny Vatican City had risen to four, after the outpatient treated in Vatican healthcare services who positive for the illness March 5.

“At present four cases of coronavirus have been found: in addition to the first previously reported, they are an employee of the Goods Office and two employees of the Vatican Museums”, Bruni explained.

“The four people had been placed in isolation as a precautionary measure before they tested positive and their isolation had lasted for over 14 days; currently they are being treated in Italian hospitals or at home”.

– Vatican defends policy as necessary to provide “essential services” to the worldwide Church

The spokesman’s statement giving account of the coronavirus situation in the Vatican followed another declaration earlier Tuesday in which he said that “following the provisions issued on 11 March and in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, the Holy See has established that the Dicasteries and the bodies attached to them will not suspend their activity”.

“The heads of the Dicasteries are entrusted with the task of continuing to ensure essential services to the Universal Church by providing minimum quotas of staff in the office and encouraging remote work as much as possible, so as to limit the movement of employees and at the same time guarantee the exercise of the Petrine ministry”, Bruni said.

“Furthermore, in case of contact of employees of the Holy See or citizens of the Vatican City State with the coronavirus, the Health and Hygiene Department has prepared a protocol for the timely communication of cases to the health authorities of the place of residence and to those of the Vatican City State”.

– Workers in three offices deplore “dangerous” conditions

Bruni’s move today to clear up the COVID-19 panorama in the Vatican was a response to media reports earlier Tuesday that quoted Holy See employees and their families as saying they were concerned over their safety at work during the pandemic.

According to those reports, workers at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are being asked to show up five days a week at the office, above all to prevent sensitive documents from leaving the archives.

Employees at the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples are also being told to be physically present at work at least twice a week, a policy one worker’s wife deplored as risky.

“The whole of Italy closes down but not so the Vatican, at least not Propaganda Fide”, that spouse wrote on Facebook.

“It is dangerous, moving between cities, trains, metro and buses. I cannot believe that this is actually happening!”

Meanwhile, in the Vatican’s nerve centre – the Secretariat of State – superiors in an internal memo also directed workers living in the city state or nearby to come into the office, though that memo did say the department would allow working from home as well.

The Vatican’s reluctance to shut down operations during the coronavirus is in stark contrast to the policy adopted in neighbouring Italy, where all non-essential factories and businesses were shut down March 22 on the orders of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

The Vatican’s policy is also potentially highly dangerous, given the advanced age of many of its citizens – the elderly being the most at-risk group of contracting coronavirus – and also because of the fact that many of its employees live and dine communally in their religious orders.

– Vatican paper shuts down print edition until pandemic’s end

Meanwhile, in other coronavirus news out of the Vatican today, the editors of the official paper of the city state, L’Osservatore Romano, have taken the unpredecented decision to shut down the print edition of the periodical from this Wednesday March 25 until the end of the pandemic.

“We’ll continue to work from home”, L’Osservatore Romano director Andrea Monda explained to Italian paper Il Messaggero.

Monda lamented the fact that the COVID-19 outbreak has made printing the Vatican gazette impossible, but looked forward to using the pandemic to boost L’Osservatore‘s presence online.

– Update: 26/3/20 11:09 CET: Pope housemate tests positive for virus: report

Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported today that a priest collaborator and housemate of Pope Francis’ – identified as Monsignor Gianluca Pezzoli, 58 – has tested positive for coronavirus.

The COVID-19-infected priest is an employee of the Vatican Secretary of State who has lived for years in the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse the pontiff has chosen to call home since he was elected to the papacy in 2013.

The new Vatican virus victim is the first of the city’s permanent residents – as opposed to its regular commuters – to fall prey to the disease.

Although he has been hospitalised and isolated to prevent further spread of the contagion, the COVID-19-positive priest’s health is not thought to be in grave danger.

As a further precautionary measure, Vatican authorities have moved to sanitise the Santa Marta Guesthouse, the Apostolic Palace and the Secretary of State.

– Update: 26/3/20 19:33 CET: Pope negative for virus

Pope Francis – an at-risk person for coronavirus due to his advanced age of 83, and due to the fact he had part of one lung removed when he was young – has today tested negative for COVID-19 in his second test in three weeks.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.