Major flu outbreak prompts dioceses to implement prevention protocols

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth


(CNS) — The nationwide flu outbreak has prompted dioceses to take steps to suspend
traditional rituals to prevent the spread of the virus as much as possible.

From encouraging
a simple nod or a smile during the sign of peace to draining holy water fonts,
the actions come as the flu sweeps through virtually every corner of the
country in the worst outbreak of the disease in nearly a decade.

The Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention reported Jan. 26 that most people are being
infected with the influenza B, or H3N2, virus. Tens of thousands of people have
been hospitalized since Oct. 1, the start of the flu season.

The U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops maintains a page on its website devoted to the liturgy
and influenza. It offers information about the flu as well as how to prevent
the spread of any disease at liturgy.

The page
can be found at

Meanwhile, Bishop
Edward C. Malesic of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, advised parishioners not to
shake hands during the sign of peace and stopped the use of consecrated wine
during Communion.

Across the
state in Allentown, the diocese implemented similar restrictions. Diocesan
spokesman Matt Kerr told local media the practice occurs most years during the
flu season.

In the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, Chancellor Patricia Fierro
sent a memo to all parishes asking clergy and others to practice proper hygiene
during the flu season. The diocese also asked sick parishioners to refrain from
drinking from the cup during holy Communion.

“When you take Communion,
you’re taking the body and the blood of Christ, so even if you only receive the
host and not the precious blood you’re still receiving Communion,” she

A posting on the website of the
Diocese of Rochester, New York, outlined four protocols to be observed for the celebration
of Mass at all faith communities.

Father Paul J. Tomasso, diocesan vicar general and
moderator of the curia, said Jan. 24 that parishes should regularly drain holy
water fonts and clean them with disinfecting soap. The old holy water should be
disposed of in a sacrarium,
or special sink.

guidelines include distributing Communion without sharing the chalice; sharing
the sign of peace without a handshake; and the cleansing of all vessels used at
each Mass with hot water and mild soap.

measures were implemented by Bishop
Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine, after he reviewed reports about
influenza from state health authorities.

The bishop urged
parishioners who are sick to stay away from church gatherings and reminded them
that they are not obligated to attend weekly Mass when ill. Parishioners also were
urged, but not required, to receive Communion in their hand rather than on
their tongue. Priests were advised to be careful not to touch the tongues or
hands of communicants.

January, numerous dioceses have outlined similar measures on their websites.

Beyond looking out for the
welfare of church members, Catholic agencies are addressing how the
flu epidemic is affecting other groups.

The homeless are particularly
vulnerable to the flu and organizations who work to protect this population are
taking extra efforts to shield them from a potential outbreak, said Augustine
Frazier, a senior program manager for the homeless at Catholic Charities of the
Archdiocese of Washington.

That includes special attention
to cleaning the sleeping quarters, air vents and bathroom facilities at homeless
shelters run by Catholic Charities, Frazier told Catholic News Service Feb. 1.

Catholic Charities also provides
frequent medical clinics for the homeless at their facilities where flu shots
are always offered, he said.

In addition to being more exposed to the elements
during winter, the homeless frequently have compromised immune systems, often
miss taking their medications, don’t have adequate warm clothing and often
sleep in shelters with hundreds of other people who may be sick, said Dr.
Catherine Crosland. She is director of homeless outreach development for Unity Health
Care Inc., a Washington-based organization that was providing a medical clinic
at Catholic Charities’ Adam’s Place homeless shelter and day resource center.

Crosland gave the flu shot to
dozens of homeless men and women during the Feb. 1 clinic day.

“Especially in
the homeless population (it’s beneficial) that the more people who get
vaccinated the less likely we are to have an outbreak and that is part of
something called herd immunity,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the one by one
case, but in a group of 100 people, if half of the folks are vaccinated, you
have less likelihood of there being an outbreak.”

To date, Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of
the Influenza Division in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory
Diseases at CDC, said the agency had not yet compiled the total number of
flu deaths, but he noted that 53 children had died.

Based on
statistics compiled from previous influenza outbreaks, the agency expects about
710,000 hospitalizations by the end of flu season in mid-May, according to a transcript
from a conversation about the flu epidemic on the CDC website that Jernigan joined.

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Chaz Muth contributed to this story.

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