Archdiocese focuses on prevention, preparation for swine flu

BRAINTREE -- With the number of swine flu cases and concerns on the rise in the Bay State, the Archdiocese of Boston is updating parishes and schools on recognizing the symptoms of the disease and preventing its spread but is not planning any major liturgical or procedural changes at this time.

Joseph McEnness, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Parish Services and Risk Management, said the risk alerts e-mailed, faxed and posted to the risk management Web site are designed to bring attention to any imminent threat. The alerts have given Catholic organizations information on the site of swine flu outbreaks and procedures to follow when someone displays symptoms.

One confirmed case of the swine flu, discovered in a student at the Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsborough, prompted a “crisis response team” to make resources available to the institution. The school will be closed for a week and disinfected, he said.

The goal is to help Catholic organizations mitigate the spread of the disease and take steps before a threat arises in order to plan for such an event. McEnness’ office actually published a special addition of their newsletter in December 2008 on pandemic preparedness. Such foresight allows Catholic institutions to minimize disruption to their ministries, he said.

In Massachusetts, the number of confirmed cases was 34 at press time. Only three of those were hospitalized because of the disease, and all were expected to recover.

The archdiocese had not called for widespread action, though some parishes have implemented practices followed during a normal flu season including refraining from offering the Communion cup and asking parishioners to make an appropriate gesture for the sign of peace that avoids physical contact.

The influenza strain, officially named H1N1, is a respiratory illness spread from person to person mainly through sneezing or coughing. It is also possible to contract the virus by touching something that has been contaminated and then touching your mouth or nose, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). In Mexico, where the disease originated, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City canceled Masses in that archdiocese on April 26.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has not recommended such drastic steps in this country. Their guidelines state that distributors of the Eucharist are urged to wash their hands before and after Communion and that those who feel ill should not receive from the cup. Further actions may be necessary in localities where the outbreak is most significant.

On April 29, the archdiocese sent an e-mail to employees with these USCCB’s guidelines. The information, in the form of questions and answers, was posted by the Committee on Divine Worship and developed with the CDC.

The swine flu case at the Academy of Notre Dame caused the school to cancel all classes and activities for the week beginning May 4. The academy consists of a co-educational elementary school and an all-girls’ high school.

“The health and well being of our students, teachers, staff and community are our top priority,” said president of the academy Karen Juliano in a statement. “In particular we pray for the speedy recovery of our student.”

Two students who attend Catholic school in Lowell were also diagnosed with the disease. They caught the flu while on vacation in April and never returned to the school, so the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found no risk to anyone at the school and no action necessary, according to an archdiocesan statement.

Several hundred schools across the country have been closed. At least one other Catholic school in the U.S. -- St. Francis Preparatory School in New York City -- closed because of swine flu.

The Catholic Schools Office sent information regarding the outbreak of swine flu to all principals on April 28. The communication included a list of symptoms and steps for prevention. It also said that if anyone at the school exhibited symptoms, they should be asked if they have traveled to high-risk areas and if so should be separated from others and sent home. A doctor’s note would be required for their return to the school. The archdiocese also urged schools to use masks and sanitizing liquids as well as contact the archdiocese with questions or concerns.

This information was sent to schools “well ahead” of any case appearing here within the archdiocese in order to set up protocol in the event that schools encountered the disease, William McKersie, associate superintendent of academic excellence, told The Pilot.

“As schools have faced issues, we have been right there,” he said.

The effort to assist schools has been coordinated by the offices of Catholic schools, communications and risk management, following federal and state guidelines, he added.