Entire church self-isolates after single positive test for COVID; cases highest level in UK 

Big Ben
The Union flag flies in front of the Clock face on the Queen Elizabeth Tower, commonly referred to as Big Ben on April 2, 2019, in London, England. |

An entire Catholic congregation in Stafford, England, has had to self-isolate after a single parishioner tested positive for the coronavirus. The move comes as new cases of a newer strain of the virus are emerging in the United Kingdom. 

The congregation, St. Austin's Catholic Church, was told of the positive test following mass on Sunday.  

"Following the advice given by the NHS over the phone, and the guidelines given on the website, we believe we have contacted everyone who attended this mass, informing them of the situation and the need to isolate for ten days," the church wrote on its Facebook page.

The parish priest said that church leaders have been in touch with the National Health Service agencies to reach everyone who was there, instructing them to self-isolate. 

St. Austin's has canceled services for the rest of the week as a result of the infection. 

The latest official figures show that Staffordshire, which is the county of approximately 875,000 people in the Midlands of England that is home to Stafford, has had approximately 3,500 new cases of COVID-19 in the past seven days. 

The United Kingdom has been under stringent lockdowns in recent months and this week those restrictions were increased as a newer more infectious strain of the virus has begun plaguing the nation. The latest version of the guidelines allow for houses of worship to remain open for individual prayer and communal worship. But the rules also say people must not meet outside their household or support bubble and not mingle with people outside those groups. 

The new variant of the virus has led to a new lockdown that is scheduled to remain in effect until at least mid-February, according to the BBC. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a televised address Monday that the nation's hospitals are strained from COVID more than anytime since the pandemic started. 

The Associated Press reported Monday that 26,626 COVID patients were currently in hospitals, a 30% increase from one week ago. The figure is 40% more than the highest level when the first wave of the virus hit in the spring. 

“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet but I really do believe that we’re entering the last phase of the struggle,” Johnson said.

The start of even tighter measures come as health authorities have started distributing Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines across the country, in hopes that life may begin returning to normal in a few months. Approximately 700 vaccination sites are already presently operating with more sites expected to open later this week. 

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