DALLAS (AP) — Texas churches are taking precautions to try to help congregants avoid the flu — keeping hand sanitizer at the ready, telling them they can skip the shared communion chalice, and encouraging a bow, nod or even fist bump instead of shaking hands.
As people left a morning Mass on Sunday at St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas, many stopped at a table in the vestibule to bathe their hands in hand sanitizer. Church leaders also are advising parishioners that they can take just bread for Holy Communion and skip the wine, which is sipped from a shared cup. During the sign of peace when parishioners greet each other, they can nod or bow instead of shaking hands.
"There's a lot of head bowing or nodding toward your neighbor," said the Rev. Edwin Leonard.
The annual flu season hit earlier than normal this year and has been unusually vigorous. Health officials say the best way to protect yourself is to get a flu shot. People also should wash their hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes, and stay home when sick.
At King of Glory Lutheran Church in Dallas, senior pastor Jon Bustard encouraged young and old in the congregation to bump fists instead of shaking hands Sunday. The announcement brought chuckles, but many indeed fist bumped, while others waved to each other as part of their greeting to start the service.
Later, during the point in the service when churchgoers say "peace be with you" and usually shake hands with those seated nearby, Bustard said, "Let us carefully share that peace with one another."
As Donielle Graham and her family members left Mass at St. Rita, they all covered their hands in sanitizer. Graham said her family decided to stop drinking from the communion chalice around Christmas. "Just for right now — just in case," she said, noting that even they had all gotten flu shots, the virus could quickly run through a family with four young children.
Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman Chris Van Deusen said that the same advice should be given to any other large gathering of people. "Everybody needs to be taking precautions," Van Deusen said.
Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, chief of pediatric infectious Diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Children's Medical Center, noted that someone can be contagious for a day or so before developing symptoms.
"It certainly makes a lot of sense during flu epidemics to limit the amount of contact between individuals," Kahn said.
Annette Gonzales Taylor, director of communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas, said the diocese has sent out recommendations for priests for the flu season, urging them to wash their hands frequently, use soap and hot water to clean the communion chalice and have those who serve the communion use hand sanitizer.
In the San Angelo diocese, which covers 29 counties in West and Central Texas, Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer said he hasn't received any complaints about his advice that parishes stop using a shared chalice during communion. He took the same step during the swine flu epidemic of 2009.
The Episcopal Diocese of Texas in Houston, which represents an area sprawling from Houston to Austin, is using social media and emailed newsletters to encourage parishioners to follow basic medical advice, including frequently washing hands, said spokesman Luke Blount.
"It's of course something that we're always mindful of," said Jimmy Grace, an episcopal priest at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston. "We have hand sanitizers around cathedral."
And while the church hasn't changed its process for communion, Grace said parishioners can decide not to drink from the shared cup.
And, he said, "They know that if they're not feeling well, they're not going to be coming to church."
Associated Press writer Diana Heidgerd contributed to this report.