Love thy neighbor — just don’t touch him during flu season.
With the country, city and state in the grip of a flu season made worse by the more dangerous H1N1 strain, even churches are taking precautions. The Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford has sent out a directive to the churches in its jurisdiction, which includes New Haven, recommending the suspension of communal wine and handshaking or handholding during Mass to prevent the spread of the flu.
Though city officials strongly support such measures, some churches in New Haven, even Catholic ones specifically targeted by the directive, have yet to make the changes.
Archbishop Henry Mansell, who issued the directive two weeks ago, wrote that it was clear that certain practices during Mass should be suspended given the high risk of H1N1. During Mass, Catholic parishioners typically shake hands as they share a sign of peace, hold hands as they say the Our Father prayer and share wine from a communal cup during communion. The guidelines recommended ending all these practices.
Archdiocese spokesman Father John Gatzak said yesterday that nothing in the Mass had to be compromised to comply with the safety guidelines: A sign of peace, he said, can be exchanged with a nod or a smile.
Although the directive is not mandatory, Gatzak said he expects most pastors to comply with it.
“I hope most will take it to heart and help us all stay healthy,” he said.
But one week after the guidelines were issued, St. Thomas More, a church on Park Street that serves much of Yale’s Catholic community, was operating normally. Communal wine was served, hands were held and shaken; parishioners were even given the traditional encouragement at the beginning of Mass to “rise and greet your neighbor.”
“The data isn’t in,” Father Peter Walsh, assistant chaplain at St. Thomas More, said. “We are still considering making the changes and we will do so if we get clear indications.”
He said the church did suspend handshakes and communal wine last spring, when H1N1 was first being publicized. But he said some Yale medical school faculty told him the measures would not accomplish much, as the flu is primarily airborne.
Walsh said the church is encouraging sick parishioners to simply stay home.
But Director William Quinn of the New Haven Department of Health said the preventative measures, if implemented, would be certain to reduce the spread of flu. He explained that though the virus is airborne, victims frequently sneeze into their hands, increasing the likelihood of transmission person-to-person.
“If everyone followed these simple precautions, the problem would be lessened very, very much,” he said.
As of last Thursday more than 300 Yale community members have contracted the H1N1 virus.