Church fighting spread of flu

| October 8, 2009

The Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese is suspending the use of wine for Holy Communion and the practice of handshaking, at least temporarily, as a measure to prevent the spread of swine flu.

The measures take effect by the weekend of Oct. 17-18, said Tony DeGol, secretary for communications.

“The bishops of Pennsylvania met recently and agreed that each bishop would develop directives for his home district,” DeGol said.

“That means that each diocese will have its own directives, and each diocese will be different.”

Flu-prevention measures also will vary outside the Roman Catholic faith.

While churches with an Anglican background serve Communion in much the same manner as Roman Catholic churches, they have not made similar changes.

“We have not thought about making any change to what we normally do,” said the Rev. Vicente Santiago, priest of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Johnstown.

However, the priest said, he is careful to wash his hands before distributing the Communion and makes sure hand sanitizer is available to congregants.

Santiago said he would make changes if advised by health officials to do so.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not rank a common Communion cup as a common danger.

“As far as the Communion cup, it’s a very small risk,” CDC spokeswoman Amanda Aldridge said.

“Churches do want to consider discouraging anyone who has an active infection from taking Communion or shaking hands,” she said.

“It’s more the person’s condition that’s important. And from CDC’s point of view, it’s most important to always wash hands,” she said.

Within the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese, people are being encouraged to use common sense, DeGol said.

“If they’re not feeling well, and are truly sick, it is not a sin to miss Mass,” he said.

The ban on handshaking is not too extreme, he said.

“The feedback we’re getting from people is that they don’t want to shake hands and take the risk of being infected, but if people extend their hands and the other person does not shake, they feel snubbed,” he said.

“This will solve that problem.”

Specifically, Bishop Joseph V. Adamec issued these temporary directives Wednesday:

n Communion wine, termed the Precious Blood, will not be distributed in any form.

“Since we believe that the whole Body of Christ is present under either sign, this temporary directive should not be seen as being contrary to any basic belief of our Catholic Faith,” he said in his directives.

n Any sign of peace is to be without bodily contact, such as shaking and kissing as signs of peace. Nodding is suggested.

n The most sanitary way of receiving Holy Communion is in the hand. However, reception on the tongue may not be denied.

For priests, Adamec directs them to wash or sanitize their hands before distributing Holy Communion, to change the water in holy water fonts on a regular basis and to encourage members of the congregation to wash their hands before coming to church.

One local public-health expert welcomed the news.

Windber Research Institute has written to the diocese for the past two years, requesting some preventive measures, Chief Wellness Officer Dr. Matthew Masiello said.

“This has been long in coming,” Masiello said. “A lot of us already do that.”

Masiello said he instructs his children to avoid handshaking in church.

The bishop stresses in his written directives that the measures are temporary and will be reassessed.

“While the H1N1 flu (commonly known as the swine flu) is not, at this time, an epidemic in the commonwealth, the bishops felt a responsibility to take whatever steps they can that might help prevent such an epidemic,” he said.

“Personally, I do not believe that anyone would acquire a fatal illness from the Precious Blood, if the vessels are wiped properly.

“Nevertheless, it is better to err on the side of precaution.”

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Category: Public Health