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Pandemic teaches new worship norms

Churches work to change historic practices as they try to protect congregants


"We canít get people to stop shaking peopleís hands. Thatís the culture; itís part of the peace. People cannot imagine not doing that"

—Lori Peters, Parish Nurse

Usually on Sunday mornings members of the congregation of All Saints Episcopal Church in Frederick greet each other with a warm handshake. Now they are being encouraged to just wave “Hello.”

Officials from the local Episcopal diocese are amongst a number of faith-based organizations that are urging their members to develop a few new habits to avoid spreading germs.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland sent out a newsletter to all of its member churches last spring. The letter provided some new guidelines for the exchanging of peace and communion. These are two very important parts of worship, but they are also times in the service where members touch or share a common cup Ė two potentially dangerous actions in the middle of a potential flu pandemic.

But, it’s easier said than done. Members have been shaking hands and sharing a cup for years. It’s often hard to remember you should no longer reach out and touch someone.

“We can’t get people to stop shaking people’s hands. That’s the culture; it’s part of the peace. People cannot imagine not doing that,” said Lori Peters, a faith community nurse for All Saints Episcopal Church in Frederick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is estimating 41 states already have widespread flu reports Ė very early in the year for the flu. And the H1N1 virus is targeting youths at a disproportional rate with another 43 pediatric deaths reported since Aug. 30.

The swine flu vaccine has taken longer than expected to be distributed, so officials stress that prevention is key.

New Hope Lutheran Church in Columbia, Maryland, is also trying to help avoid the spread of germs during communion. The church provides hand sanitizer gel to officiants before distributing communion. They are also serving the wine in individual paper cups instead of having the congregation share one chalice.

“So anybody that feels under the weather, can have wine, but not from the common cup,” Sharon Punte, Administrative Assistant at New Hope Lutheran Church.

Practices like this allow churches to continue their services while attempting to combat spreading germs during the flu season.

“We haven’t changed our practices in worship. We still do communion,” said Punte.

As the H1N1 virus continues to spread throughout the U.S. public health officials, as well as community and faith based organization officials are trying to stay organized and keep the public informed on how to stay healthy.

“Vaccine is the best tool to protect the flu, because, not only does it prevent people from becoming severely ill, it also prevents the spread of flu,” says Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC.

But for those unable to get the vaccine right away, health officials are encouraging people to take strategic steps to keep themselves and their families healthy. Steps like those taken by local churches in Maryland are aimed at helping their members stay healthy.

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