On any given weekend, sounds of voices singing, hymns plucked out on the piano and prayers raised up in adoration can be heard echoing through a parish. But in recent months, hacking, sneezing and exasperated sighs of sickness are sometimes common.
According to a Jan. 6 weekly influenza report released by the Arkansas Department of Health, there have been 18,000 cases of flu reported in the state since Oct. 1. In the last week of December, the flu was widespread in 46 states, including Arkansas, and four others reporting regional activity.
Because the flu can be spread quickly through coughing, sneezing or touching a hard surface, sitting next to a coughing person or shaking hands during the sign of peace at Mass can be an infectious game of Russian roulette.
Msgr. Francis I. Malone, pastor of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, has told his parishioners to use “good common sense during the flu and cold season,” which means abstaining from the Communion cup if sick, being mindful of other ways to offer the sign of peace and not holding hands during the Our Father.
“There are so many ways of exchanging the sign of peace, even by bowing,” in someone’s direction, he said. “They may not want to shake hands if they’re concerned about the cold and flu spreading and try to respect their reluctance to shake hands … don’t be offended.”
Instead of shaking hands, parishioners can make eye contact with those around them, bow gently and say, “Peace be with you”
Hand sanitizer bottles have been placed at the front of the church and in the sanctuary for extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist to use as “an added precaution,” he said.
Since Oct. 1, there have been 36 flu-related deaths reported in the state, mostly in people 65 and older. Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, chills, body aches, fatigue and headaches, according to the ADH.
The flu lasts at least five days and those who might be infected, especially the elderly and pregnant women, need to be tested and start Tamiflu medication.
Those infected should not go back to work or in public unless they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours without the aid of acetaminophen or ibuprofen, said Dr. Gary Wheeler, ADH chief medical officer.
The ADH will officially report on this flu season through Sept. 30, 2018. Every year fluctuates, but most cases tend to occur December through March. Wheeler said this year’s flu season began about six weeks early.
St. Raphael Church in Springdale is the largest parish in the diocese with almost 23,000 registered parishioners and pastor Father John Connell said because of their size, “we’ll have people sick all the time.”
“My advice always is if you are sick and you’re not feeling well and you legitimately feel like you could be contagious, you need to stay home for your own sake and for those around you,” though he does not make that announcement from the pulpit, he said. He often has people confess about missing Mass due to illness, but emphasizes, “‘That wasn’t a sin because you were sick; you made the right decision to stay home.’ I know it still bothers people when they opt not to go to Mass.”
In 2016, there were about 220,000 flu vaccines administered by ADH, not including private clinics and pharmacies, and the department expects about the same to be given by the end of this season. The vaccines are generally 70 to 90 percent effective and scientists begin studying what flu strains are prevalent in places like Asia — “If there’s going to be a shift in a type of virus going around that’s where we’ll first see it,” Wheeler said. This year the strains included in the vaccine match “pretty well.” But, for reasons that are unknown at the moment, “virus particles and other agents designed to increase the immune response” are not as effective this year.
While the dream is to create a flu vaccine as effective as the measles vaccine, which is almost 95 percent effective, laboratories around the world are still working on it.
“We would agree it doesn’t work as well as it should, but it still has positive benefits,” Wheeler said, urging people to get the flu vaccine, which is “better than nothing.”
“I think the scientists are going to have to retrospectively figure out what happened,” he said.
No Catholic schools have had to shut down because of absentees who have the flu, but students have been out sick.
Diane Wolfe, high school principal of St. Joseph School in Conway, said there have been “substantially more (students) testing positively for the flu than I’ve ever seen” and whole families in pre-K through 12th grade.
“We’ve done some things we’ve always done in order to prevent some of the contagion. All the classrooms have hand sanitizers and the kids are pretty good about using it,” Wolfe said.
School policy states children must stay home from school until they’ve had no fever for 24 hours without medication. Google Classroom has allowed some students who are well enough to keep up with homework at home, but “it’s tough on the teachers because then a week or two afterwards we’re chasing make-up work,” Wolfe said.
Flu shots were available for all faculty and staff this year, she said.
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