Dioceses put pandemic plans into high gear

  • October 30, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - As Canadians come to grips with an expected H1N1 flu pandemic, Catholic dioceses across Canada are taking extra precautionary steps to guard against the flu that has so far claimed the lives of 95 Canadians.

Steps were in place in many dioceses to stem the spread of H1N1, also known as swine flu. But they are being ramped up in some dioceses.

Starting Nov. 2, Catholic churches in Canada's largest city will be implementing new hygiene practices.

Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins has instructed parishes to temporarily suspend communion from the chalice, communion on the tongue and handshakes during the sign of peace. Toronto's Catholic churches are also being asked to provide hand cleaning stations near church entrances. Eucharistic ministers should also wash their hands before Mass and an alcohol-based sanitizer should be provided for ministers so they may sanitize their hands before and after distributing communion. In addition, parishioners are reminded to stay at home if they are sick or feeling ill.

Newfoundland and Labrador parishes launched their “pandemic plan” on Oct. 31 and enacted similar measures as Toronto. But the diocese has taken a step further by removing holy water from the entrances.

“Based on the latest information from our parishes and local health units all parishes must implement our pandemic plan effective at all Masses beginning the weekend of Oct. 31 to Nov. 1,” St. John's Archbishop Martin Currie said in a statement.

Similar directives have also been given by bishops in the Kingston, London, Winnipeg and Edmonton dioceses.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith recommended that extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion wash their hands before Mass and avoid touching their mouth, nose and eyes during Mass.

“All ministers must sanitize their hands immediately before distributing Communion,” according to a Sept. 24 letter to parishes from Smith. And volunteers who bring the Eucharist to shut-ins “should not attend any homes where influenza is known or suspected to be present,” the letter continued.

Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber said churches should be kept clean and worship spaces disinfected after each Mass.

Meanwhile, Catholic school boards are also remaining vigilant. The Toronto Catholic District School Board has implemented its pandemic plan which includes promoting proper cough etiquette, hand sanitizers at the main office and a disinfection training program for school custodians.

As of Oct. 26, 12 Toronto Catholic schools had reported a 10-per-cent increase in student abstentee rates which the board has reported to Toronto Public Health and the Ontario Ministry of Education. Board safety manager Corrado Maltese said the spike in absenteeism includes students who exhibit flu-like symptoms or a cold, or possibly the “fear factor” of parents who are keeping their kids at home.

The Ottawa Catholic School Board has also implemented its pandemic plan for more than 72,000 students in 150 schools which designates clear lines of authority and responsibilities and instructions on what to do if a school has to be closed, relocated or evacuated.

The death of Mississauga student Evan Frustaglio on Oct. 27 after contracting H1N1 has contributed to increasing public concerns about swine flu.

In Toronto, parents have been lining up with their children for hours for the swine flu vaccine during the first few days of its availability. The federal government has ordered 1.8 million doses of vaccines. But the federal government has said there is an unexpected delay in the shipment of the vaccines. The manufacturer recently said it will only be able to produce 400,000 doses this week, instead of the million expected doses.

Priority groups are being given the vaccines first at public health clinics across the country. Those aged six months to 65 years with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women with chronic medical conditions or more than 20 weeks pregnant, health-care workers, children between the ages of six months and five years are among these priority groups and people taking care of persons at high risk who may not respond to vaccines or cannot be immunized.

General information about H1N1 can be found on the Public Health Agency of Canada's web site at www.phac-aspc.gc.ca .

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