Churches take healthy interest in fighting the spread of H1N110-02-2009
With flu season here, the state’s United Methodist churches are taking steps to ensure that their worship, at least in one sense, doesn’t go viral.
Vic Nixon, senior pastor of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock, assured worshippers on a recent Sunday that they can forego physical contact when they pass the peace.
“[I told them] You don’t actually have to shake hands or touch each other,” Nixon said. “And I told them we have hand sanitizers throughout the building.”
Since spring, First UMC in Bentonville has kept hand sanitizer on its altar so that clergy and Communion servers can wash up before touching the elements of the holy meal.
“We have Communion in every worship every Sunday,” Rex Dickey, the senior pastor, said. “As frequently as we take Communion, we thought it was important to do that. … We’re trying to be very proactive without being alarming.”
The rapid spread of the highly contagious H1N1 (swine flu) around the globe has made such health precautions particularly urgent this year.
Beyond bringing out the hand sanitizer, First UMC in Bentonville is also discussing under what circumstances an outbreak would lead the church to close its preschool.
Other United Methodist churches are bringing out tiny individual cups for the Lord’s Supper in time for World Communion Sunday on Oct. 4.
So far, five people in Arkansas have died of the H1N1 virus, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
But even the seasonal flu can be fatal for the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions. About 36,000 people in the United States die each year of influenza, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The H1N1 virus is most dangerous for:
- Pregnant women.
- Teenagers and young children.
- Frail elders.
- Those with underlying health conditions such as asthma and diabetes.
- Those with weakened immune systems.
Starting in late October, the state health department plans to distribute free vaccinations — one for the seasonal flu and one for H1N1 — at sites in every county in the state. The department also will distribute vaccines through the state’s public schools.
Ed Barham, the department’s public information officer, said he expects it will be the most massive vaccination campaign in the state’s history.
In the mean time, the department encourages Arkansans do what they can to minimize the transmission of the germs.
Dr. James Phillips — the department’s branch chief who deals with infectious disease — recommends churches use intinction (that is, the dipping method) or individual cups for Communion, rather than drinking from a common cup.
But because the virus is airborne, the primary risk is from the people around you — not Communion, said Barham, who is also a member of Pulaski Heights UMC.
“The best advice we can offer is: People who are feeling ill ... stay home,” Barham said. “You also should stay away from anyone who is ill.”
Chaplain John Wilcher, the director of clergy and conference ministries at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare in Memphis, says church leaders can play a role in promoting awareness.
He hopes pastors will stress the need for people to get shots for both the seasonal flu and H1N1.
Methodist Healthcare also is distributing bottles of hand sanitizer emblazoned with the hospital logo.
Chris Cooper, the senior pastor of Cornerstone UMC in Jonesboro, hopes his congregation can do something similar — pass out small bottles at Arkansas State University tailgate parties.
Cooper got the idea after some family members came down with the flu and couldn’t make it to Jonesboro for a football game.
The following Sunday, he used hand sanitizer before consecrating the Communion bread and grape juice. He also passed the bottle of Purell around to the Communion servers with the blessing, “Take this in remembrance of your neighbor.”
“That got people to snickering,” Cooper said. “Everybody was pleased that we did this. People said, ‘Thank you.’”
During worship, Dickey says he’s talked about the importance of regularly washing your hands.
“We’ve talked about singing the ABC song in your head as you wash with soap and water,” the Bentonville pastor said. “I think health and holiness go together.”
To learn more, visit the Arkansas Department of Health Web site at www.healthyarkansas.com, or U.S. Department of Health and Human Services site at www.flu.gov.