Four Swiss Guards have tested positive for coronavirus and were showing symptoms, the Vatican said Monday, as the surge in infections in surrounding Italy penetrates the Vatican walls.
The Swiss Guards, the world's oldest standing army, provide ceremonial guard duty during papal Masses, man the Vatican gates and help protect the 83-year-old Pope Francis.
The four are in isolation while their contacts are being traced, the Vatican said. They join three other Vatican residents who tested positive in recent weeks plus the dozen or so Holy See officials who tested positive during the first wave of the outbreak.
Despite the positive cases among his own guards, Francis was seen once again without a mask on Monday. He warmly greeted Australian Cardinal George Pell in his private studio, and neither man wore a mask. Also unmasked were Pell's secretary and the Vatican photographer.
Pell returned to the Vatican last month after spending 13 months in prison in Australia before being acquitted of child sexual abuse charges.
In a photograph of the meeting shared by the Vatican, the two are pictured side by side and maskless.
Francis, who lost part of one lung to illness when he was a young man, has drawn sharp criticism in social media for shunning a mask during his Wednesday general audience, held last week indoors.
He was seen shaking hands with clerics and otherwise mingling with the masked crowd. His bodyguards were similarly maskless.
Italy is seeing a sharp surge in Covid-19 cases, with the Lazio region around the Vatican among the worst-hit in this second wave of the pandemic. Lazio currently has more people hospitalised with the virus than any other region, at 911, with 69 in intensive care.
The Vatican last week amended its mask mandates to conform to that of Italy, requiring them indoors and out. The Vatican didn't immediately respond when asked why Francis wasn't wearing one to receive Pell.
The guards, famous for their billowy blue, red and yellow striped uniforms, are all single Swiss men under age 30 and must be upstanding Catholics. They sign up for two-year tours of duty and live communally inside the Vatican City State.
During their annual swearing-in ceremony — usually held in May but postponed until October 4 because of Covid-19 — none of the recruits donned a mask, even though they wear them while standing guard at the entrances to Vatican City.
- Associated Press, additional reporting NZ Herald