All the media focus on the recent outbreak of the H1N1 "Swine Flu" influenza virus has raised some questions about life in and around St. Andrew's. We will of course remain alert to any guidance from public health authorities if concerns become more serious.
Some thoughts in the meantime.
1. The H1N1 virus has not at this point been detected in our region. It is, however, a virus that seems to be transmitted fairly easily from person to person, so it is reasonably likely that there will be some cases here in the next days or weeks.
2. The "Swine Flu" has not thus far appeared to cause unusually severe illness in most of those who have been infected. It seems to be generally comparable to the kinds of respiratory influenza illnesses common during the winter flu season, and at this point is being described as "fairly mild."
However, influenza is always serious and even life threatening for the very young, the elderly, and those with other pre-existing health conditions. (I understand that approximately 30,000 people die in the U.S. every year from flu.)
We are also mindful of the fact that influenza viruses do mutate, sometimes becoming less harmful, sometimes becoming more harmful, as they move through populations. Certainly there is no need to panic--but neither should we be overly casual or dismissive.
3. At present, as we come to the end of the winter flu cycle here in the Northern Hemisphere, the primary concern is to prevent the spread of the disease. (Nearly all cases so far in the U.S. are among folks who have very recently been to Mexico, and among those in immediate contact with them. Though the circles obviously have the potential to grow from that.)
In this regard, the first and most important pastoral note is that people who are ill , or who have been exposed to those who are ill, should minimize their contact with others. Take a couple of days off from work or school, avoid movie theaters, the mall, supermarkets, concert halls, etc. Keep the kids home for a day or two. Yes: even church.
The Rector's sermons are always available, of course, via the "Rector's Page" button on the parish website . . . .
If you're sick, or know you've been exposed: Don't shake hands. Cover when you sneeze. Etc.
If you have high fever or other flu symptoms, contact your physician. The new anti-viral drugs are apparently quite effective.
Though again, it is important to emphasize that for most otherwise healthy people "swine flu" appears at this point to be not much different from the kinds of moderate respiratory influenza-caused illnesses we experience seasonally.
4. If and when the virus comes to our region, we will introduce a few modifications in our Sunday and weekday worship.
One would be, for example, a suggestion that the "passing of the peace" be done verbally, and with a smile, but without the shaking of hands or other physical contact.
Another would be in the administration of communion, with clergy using a cleansing wipe along with the usual ablutions before distributing the bread, and with the introduction of an Intinction Cup, a smaller chalice that allows for the intinction of the communion wafer without concern about any possible transmission via saliva or fingers. We are reminded that those who have been exposed to the flu may be contagious for a few days before they begin to notice any symptoms.
Again, these practices will be announced in church when appropriate, should we learn that there are cases of the illness being reported in Western Pennsylvania.
We would be reminded, though, in the meantime, that many studies over many years have shown that the possibility of viral transmission via corporate Holy Communion, whether by sipping from a chalice or from intinction, is extremely low. It is commonly said that the most likely place to "catch something" at Church is not during the service, but when greeting friends out on the sidewalk afterwards . . . .
We will in any case certainly keep the wider situation in mind and make appropriate modifications of our practices, with of course the well-being of our members, friends, and neighbors at the forefront of our concern.
Finally, just to note that efforts are underway to have a vaccine for H1N1 ready in time for the onset of seasonal flu concerns this fall. As I frequently interact with people of all ages and health conditions, and with concerns that I not be an agent of infection, I do personally make it a practice to have a flu shot as soon as they are available via the Allegheny County Health Dept. each fall.
I would encourage all who are able to receive those vaccinations this year to do so, and as early in the fall season as possible.
Affectionately, --with prayers for good health for all, and looking forward to seeing you at Church!--