Winnipeg churches ban handshakes over H1N1

| September 28, 2009

The Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg has banned handshaking between church-goers over concerns it could lead people to contract the H1N1 influenza virus, also known as swine flu.

In a statement Thursday, Archbishop James Weisgerber said all city Catholic churches and schools are now in "Stage 1" of a three-stage pandemic prevention plan.

That means the archdiocese considers H1N1 to be in the general church population and people with chronic and acute illnesses are at risk.
The diocese said instead of mass participants shaking hands during the Rite of Peace, they’ll be told to substitute a bow of the head.

The archdiocese also said public holy-water fonts at church entrances have been drained and hand-sanitizing stations have been placed there.

Church worship spaces will be disinfected after each service, and the archdiocese said that during communion, chalices "will be aggressively wiped after each communicant."

Weisgerber said the plans "were developed as a necessary precaution in response to current concerns about an increased risk of infection from the H1N1 virus."

Rev. Sam Argenziano of Winnipeg’s Holy Rosary parish, in the Osborne Village neighbourhood, said Sunday the development is a first for his church, but people are being "positive" about it.

"In North America, shaking hands is a very normal procedure, so we’re asking people just to turn to their neighbour in the pew, [offer] a bow of the head and say ‘peace be with you’ — not to touch each other’s hands," Argenziano said.

"Everybody’s very positive, nobody wants to be sick…. People still want to worship God, so we want to be together."

Spokesman James Buchok said the changes are not permanent.

"They’re just during times of risk. We wanted to put them in place at the beginning of cold and flu season," Buchok said.

"It’s not as if we will never shake hands again."
Changes not requested by Manitoba Health

Dr. Joel Kettner, Manitoba’s chief officer of health, said the measures taken by the archdiocese aren’t at his request.

"I haven’t given out any advice to change … usual practices. The decisions around personal contact are a matter of weighing benefits and risks," Kettner said.

"We’re not recommending handshaking should be avoided or kissing should be avoided…. The bottom line is at this point in time it should be business as usual."

The archdiocese said Stage 2 of its pandemic plan — when the virus begins to kill people in high-risk populations — will mean the suspension of communion from the chalice and communion wafers being placed on the tongue.

Should the virus become pervasive and place everyone at risk, the archdiocese will limit parish assemblies or even close churches as part of a "worst-case scenario." The archdiocese calls this Stage 3 of its pandemic plan.

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Category: Public Health

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