By George P. Matysek Jr.
Father Samuel V. Young isn’t taking any chances.
When the flu season struck the Baltimore area immediately after the holidays, the pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Parkton suspended the distribution of the Precious Blood during Mass. In mid-January, two large hand sanitizer machines, donated by parishioners, were installed near the doors of the church. Parishioners have also been encouraged to use common sense when it comes to shaking hands during the Sign of Peace.
“We want to be sensitive to what people are going through,” Father Young said. “I just think it’s good to use caution.”
As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an earlier onset of the flu season than in previous years, Archbishop William E. Lori encouraged parishes throughout the region to take precautionary measures such as the ones employed at Our Lady of Grace.
Archdiocesan liturgical guidelines were distributed to all parishes Jan. 15, outlining recommended practices to reduce the transmission of the flu. They included suspending the distribution of the Precious Blood (at the discretion of each pastor); offering the Sign of Peace without physical contact; draining, cleaning and refilling holy water fonts on a regular basis; making sure all ministers of holy Communion use hand sanitizer; and taking care to disinfect handrails, restrooms and the tops of pews.
“We want to remind people that if they are sick, they should stay home,” said Dr. Diane Barr, chancellor, noting that those who are ill are not bound by the Sunday Mass obligation. “If they have to care for someone who is sick, the same applies.”
Kellie Taylor, director of marketing and community health at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, noted that her hospital saw its peak of patients with influenza-like illnesses just after the holidays.
The hospital had a total emergency department volume in January that was 10.6 percent greater than January a year ago, Taylor said.
“This has been an early flu season and more severe, as the seasonal flu virus circulating is H3, which tends to be more severe,” she said. “The CDC confirmed that the (flu) vaccine is a good match and strongly recommends vaccination. It is not too late.”
Employees of the Catholic Center and the Catholic Review in Baltimore were offered free flu vaccinations from the Baltimore archdiocese in the fall.
Catholic schools in the Baltimore archdiocese do not seem to have been hurt too badly by the flu outbreak, according to Dr. Barbara McGraw Edmondson, superintendent. Classes have not been cancelled or schools closed because of absentee students.
“If children are sick, they should stay home so they don’t infect other children,” she said. “Come back when they’re ready.”
Elizabeth Lowe contributed to this story.