Archdiocese responds to spread of H1N1 virus

Fear about the H1N1 virus is spreading almost as quickly as the virus itself. The Archdiocese of Boston has taken steps to stem the proliferation of the virus and reduce anxiety by encouraging good hygiene, reserving the Precious Blood for clergy at Mass and changing practices during the exchange of peace. These changes will take effect on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009 and will remain in place until heightened influenza levels have diminished.

The archdiocese worked closely with priests, parishes, the Archdiocesan Office of Risk Management, and local health officials, including the Boston Public Health Commission’s Infectious Disease Bureau, to put these practices into place. Father Jonathan Gaspar, co-director of the Office of Worship and Spiritual Life, who was instrumental in the process, said that the precautions during the celebration of Mass follow the trend taken throughout the country to prevent the spread of the H1N1 influenza.

“We are experiencing influenza levels that require us to take significant steps, not to alarm people, but to encourage them to take personal steps in good hygiene,” said Father Gaspar, who explained that October’s influenza levels aren’t normally seen until January or February. “We needed to do something as a community to address the concerns of our people.”

Father Gaspar stated that the real motivation for putting forth these Mass guidelines, in addition to preventing the spread of illness of any kind, was to provide a sense of security to parishioners during the celebration of Mass. “There are germs everywhere and if people don’t want to get sick these are measures that they have to take personally, but we as an archdiocese are also responding to requests from parishes, pastors and parishioners, so we are taking steps as a community to curb the possible spread of infection,” he continued.

According to facts and figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concern about H1N1 is warranted. Forty-six states in the United States are reporting “widespread influenza activity” and almost all of the cases are the H1N1 influenza strain. Doctor’s visits and hospital stays due to flu-like illnesses are steeply increasing and deaths from the flu have also increased more than expected.

According to Father Richard Erikson, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, many other dioceses in the area are rolling out similar initiatives, including the dioceses of Manchester, New Hampshire and Burlington, Vermont. He stated that the Archdiocese of Boston has been monitoring the H1N1 influenza closely since January of 2008 and has been in very close contact with health officials, while also monitoring the Centers for Disease Control and the Boston Public Health Commission’s Infectious Disease Bureau.

“I believe our response is proportionate to the need and was made with good advice from health officials,” said Father Erikson. “This is a pastoral response in care for our people. We want to do whatever we can for the health of the people of Massachusetts.”

Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Infectious Disease Bureau, called the guidelines “reasonable precautions to prevent the spread of influenza.” She also encouraged people to practice good hygiene, such as washing your hands regularly and using hand sanitizer, covering their coughs and sneezes with their elbows, staying home when they are sick, and getting the H1N1 vaccine.

Thus far, Father Gaspar has received a positive response from pastors and parishes, saying that priests appreciate the clarity of the directives. He said that it is helpful to have a common standard across the board for celebrating Mass. “We are a Catholic community and we try to act in concert with every Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Boston.”

He explained that the new directives will remain in place until influenza levels lower to a point that the threat is no longer significant. He hopes that the measures are short-term. “We know how important these elements of the liturgy are for the faithful and we don’t want to keep directives in place for longer than we need to.”