North Dakota bishop exposes hundreds to hepatitis A at service

BISMARCK, N.D. — The bishop of the Fargo Catholic Diocese exposed some parishioners at North Dakota churches in Fargo, Grand Forks and Jamestown to the hepatitis A virus in late September and early October.

The state Health Department on Thursday issued an advisory of exposure for anyone who attended any of the five affected churches and took communion from Bishop John Folda, 52. State immunization program manager Molly Howell said that the risk is low but that officials “felt it was important for people to know about the possible exposure.”

State health officials say they are not sure exactly how many churchgoers might have been exposed. A church official from one affected church said about 25 people there received communion from Folda.

Diocese spokeswoman Aliceyn Magelky told The Associated Press that Folda contracted the liver disease from contaminated food while attending a conference last month in Italy for newly ordained bishops. Folda has taken time off work since Oct. 10 due to the virus, she said.

“He’s doing great,” Magelky said of Folda. “He’s moving back into his regular schedule.”

Folda issued a statement Friday apologizing to parishioners.

“I sincerely apologize to the people who may have been exposed to the virus,” his statement said. “I wish I had known I was ill so I could immediately refrain from participating in public activities. Unfortunately, I had no symptoms immediately following my return and during the events that have been brought to the public’s attention.”

Folda attended and participated in communion distribution at the Sept. 27 school Mass at Holy Spirit Church in Fargo; the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sept. 29 at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Grand Forks; the Sept. 29-Oct. 2 priest convention at St. James Basilica in Jamestown; the Oct. 6 noon Mass at Cathedral of St. Mary in Fargo; and the Oct. 7 Mass at St. Paul’s Catholic Newman Center in Fargo.

Hepatitis A is rarely deadly but can cause serious liver problems.

Folda said his doctor has told him that he is no longer contagious and hasn’t been for some time.

Magelky on Friday said Folda would soon be able to perform communion “whatever time he is invited to or asked.”

Clay Whittlesey, who serves communion at a Catholic church in Fargo, said people take great care with hygiene when preparing the bread or wafers and wine.

“I have talked to a lot of people about this, and nobody is too worried about contracting hepatitis A,” he said. “Mostly we’re praying for a healthy and speedy recovery for the bishop.”

Magelky said priests in the diocese were notified on Monday of Folda’s illness. She said the diocese did not notify the state Health Department of Folda’s illness.

“It wasn’t something that was required,” Magelky said.

Howell, of the health department, said doctors in North Dakota are required to report hepatitis cases. She said the agency learned of the illness from a “case investigation,” though she would not provide specifics, citing privacy issues.

Howell said health officials learned of the bishop’s illness too late to urge people to get a hepatitis A vaccination as a precautionary measure. A vaccination can prevent illness if given within two weeks of exposure.

“The two-week time period had passed,” she said. “It was too late.”

Symptoms of the liver disease include fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal discomfort, dark urine, pale stools or jaundice. Symptoms can take 15 to 50 days to appear. People who develop symptoms are urged to consult a doctor. Howell said health officials do not recommend that people get tested if they do not have symptoms.

——

Associated Press writer Dave Kolpack contributed to this report from Fargo, N.D.

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