Welcome to the cold and flu season. By all accounts, this one has teeth. Although the peak of the flu season has not yet arrived, there are so many cases of H1N1 flu that hospitals are straining to keep up, and some have resorted to overflow ‘flu tent’ structures to house these patients1. According to the Center for Disease Control, the flu commonly peaks in the USA during January and February, but it can begin months earlier, and can linger through May2. The last major outbreak of H1N1 flu was in 2009-10, and resulted in 284,000 deaths, worldwide. So, it pays to take precautions.
Personal Common Sense Measures
Your actions do matter. There are things that you can do to reduce your chance of falling sick. For example:
|Handwashing in 5 Easy Steps|
|Rinse with warm water, keeping hands below wrists/forearms.|
|Add 5ml of soap, completely covering the hands.|
|Rub the hands together for at least 20 seconds, making sure to cover the commonly missed areas (thumb, wrist, between fingers, under fingernails). Consider humming “I am Henry the 8th I Am” to be sure you wash for long enough.|
|Rinse from wrist to fingertips; bugs down the drain.|
|Use three different clean paper towels to 1) turn off water; 2) dry up; and 3) open the door.|
- VACCINATION – Get a flu shot, especially if you’re in regular contact with other people. Flu vaccines are still available!
- HAND HABITS – Where possible, avoid shaking hands at the height of flu season. Wash your hands often; proper hand washing is more effective than using hand sanitizer. Touching your face gives viruses a straight path to your eyes, mouth and nose, so be mindful of how often you touch your face, and how often you shake hands.
- TRAVEL – When traveling on public transportation, you can wear a mask or attempt to stay clear of people who are openly coughing,
- COURTESY – If sick, use tissues rather than hankies, and don’t set them down anywhere but in the garbage. Keep them from contaminating common surfaces.
- RESILIENCE – Help your body stay robust, with healthy food, a good night’s sleep. Reduce or stop smoking and heavy drinking, both of which make it harder for the body to fight off infection. Minimize stressful situations where possible, as stress can depress the immune response.
Measures to Take at Church
- EDUCATION. From the pulpit, the website, or the newsletter, use your voice to raise the level of knowledge. That way, you help your parishioners to help themselves stay well and healthy. And active harm prevention is one very important element of a healer’s path.
- SUPPORT HYGEINE. Offer hand sanitizer stations, if you do not already. Consider antiseptic sprays or wipes for public places, especially door knobs, seating, telephones and the like. Have a ready supply of single-use masks, for those who have active coughs but still desire to participate. Post our hand washing guidelines in the public restrooms, and mention them in Sunday School.
- HR PRACTICES. Some staff may feel compelled to come to church, sick or well, to fulfill their obligations. Reassure them that they’re helping others best when they stay home and rest, rather than spreading disease. Consider a policy of telecommuting during sick days and until 24 hours after all symptoms are gone. Even a temporary telecommute policy, only during outbreaks, could help staff who might otherwise tend to hold their sick time for dire emergencies.
- SMART SERVICES. Are the surfaces treated before or after services? What sort of Eucharistic practices are in place, and should they be reviewed, as some churches have done3? And what about the passing of the peace? Is there a reason to replace the handshake with another form of greeting?
Passing of the Peace – Why Avoid Handshakes?
Handshakes. They’re part of our culture. We’re taught that a firm grip shows strength, health, and trustworthiness. They’re meant to convey friendliness, yet their history is tied to the art of war, and especially in flu season, they can cause unintentional harm. Here are the top three reasons to move from handshakes to fist-bumps or other forms of greeting:
- The handshake originally occurred in the context of war. The handshake was a a medieval means of allowing two enemies to speak together without fear: the right hand, usually dominant, was engaged by the strong grip of the enemy. With the right hand occupied -and obviously disarmed – each warrior could negotiate with the other, without fear of being harmed. So, why not use a different greeting, in the context of peace?
- Handshakes themselves can hurt people, including the frail elderly and those who use their hands for skilled work. The image, right, shows the damage that came to the hand of a fragile, elderly Christian Brother, after repeatedly shaking hands at the end of a mass. No harm was intended. Many people — men and women alike — are taught that your handshake signifies your character. Perhaps it does. This author, a violinist, once dared to shake hands with baseball giant Hank Aaron, whose hands are very powerful. I was struck by how sensitively he shook my hand, without causing any harm. He wasn’t afraid of being perceived as gentle, which I believe shows more interior strength than those who indiscriminately use a macho death grip on all comers. Many musicians simply shy away from handshakes completely, but at that moment I realized that the sensitive handshake can show both insight and a gentle character, as it did when Hank Aaron took such care not to hurt my hand. On other occasions, I have had my hand seriously hurt by folks trying to prove that they had a strong, vigorous handshake. As a result, I am forever handshake averse.
- Handshakes spread disease. Every Sunday, during the passing of the peace, handshakes pass germs such as cold and flu viruses as well. It is well documented that people can catch diseases through shaking hands, or in scientific terms that handshakes are a known vector for disease transmission. Not everyone washes their hands regularly, but even if they do, pathogens can remain on the hands in up to 80% of cases, according to a recent scientific study found that handshakes pass along three times more pathogens than fist-bumps. They suggested that a move to fist-bumps could reduce transmission of disease as compared with a standard handshake, and should be considered, in hospitals.4 This isn’t breaking news. Handshakes have been known to spread disease for a long time, which is why the NBA banned the handshake for players, and implemented the fist-bump in 2009.
So, handshakes are linked to a history of war, and can cause physical damage as well as spread disease. The extra-firm handshake is just convention. And we can change convention, but to do so requires leadership. Until leaders clear the way for fist-bumps or other greetings, individual parishioners who try it for themselves will likely be met with quizzical looks. Until and unless leadership steps in, then why not just rename the passing of the peace to the passing of disease, at least during cold and flu season. Here are a few creative alternatives that you might want to consider, at your house of worship:
Creative Ways to Pass the Peace
- the fist-bump – 3x fewer pathogens than with a handshake.
- bumping elbows. A creative way that allows contact, worry-free.
- the Hawaiian hang-loose sign.
- hand over heart, as with the Pledge of Allegiance.
- the peace sign, for a retro feel.
- blowing air kisses, Italian style.
- the Vulcan greeting (a practice that actually was adapted from ancient worshipful practice)
- bowing your head with hands in a symbol of prayer: the holy in me bows to the holy in you (as long as both parties bow equally.)
The possibilities are endless. Let your imagination run wild, and we wish you fun, creative, health-affirming, gentle cold-and-flu season’s greetings!
1KTVU News Website, online at http://www.ktvu.com/news/news/local/overflow-cases-require-flu-tent-san-jose-hospital/ncgqd/ and accessed January 10th, 2014.
2The Center for Disease Control website, online at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season-2013-2014.htm and accessed on January 10th, 2014.
3Journal Sentinel, “Swine Flu Forces Churches to Reconsider Communal Cup.” Online at http://www.jsonline.com/news/religion/44203067.html and accessed January 10th, 2014.
4P. A. Ghareeb, T. Bourlai, et al.”Reducing Pathogen Transmission in a Hospital Setting. Handshake verses Fist Bump: A Pilot Study”, Elsevier – Journal of Hospital Infection, Sept. 25th (published online) 2013 [Impact Factor 2.855 / 5Y 3.221]