The most severe flu season in recent years has schools and churches across the region stepping up prevention efforts.
Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese this week issued temporary guidelines eliminating the distribution of wine during communion and instructing parishioners to exchange nods instead of handshakes.
“It is the belief of the Catholic Church that the whole body of Christ is present under either form of consecrated bread or wine,” Bartchak said in the announcement.
In addition, the bishop suggested accepting the communion wafer by hand instead of on the tongue.
At schools, students are getting some crash courses on infectious diseases and custodians have doubled their cleaning and sanitation work, superintendents say.
Pictures located near hand-washing sinks show Greater Johnstown School District students the recommended technique, Superintendent Gerald L. Zahorchak said.
“We are doing things like using materials from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to remind ourselves of the flu-prevention measures we want,” Zahorchak said.
“I was just checking to see that there are hand sanitizers within 30 steps in any direction,” Zahorchak said.
“Staff is constantly monitoring the supply.”
So far, it seems to be helping, Zahorchak said, noting that absenteeism has been “pretty stable.”
Most other schools contacted also reported normal absentee rates over the past couple weeks.
Two exceptions were Richland and Forest Hills elementary schools, where about 10 percent of the seats were empty earlier this week.
High school nurse Merikay Moore said she's not sure the flu is the main culprit for Richland Elementary’s 80 absent pupils.
“We have another virus going around,” Moore said. “There is a lot of nausea and vomiting. Flu is mostly respiratory symptoms. You also have fever and body aches (with the flu).”
Richland Elementary sent information home with students, reminding families of flu precautions, such as staying an arm’s length from other students and not crowding around the teacher’s desk.
“The most important thing is to stay at home if they don’t feel good,” Moore said.
Students must be fever-free, with temperatures under 100 degrees without aspirin or similar medicine, for 24 hours before returning to school. The same rules apply to teachers.
At North Star School District in Somerset County, Superintendent Shawn Kovac said the stable absentee rate has not brought complacency.
“We are stepping up our cleaning,” Kovac said. “They are disinfecting all surfaces every night now. Normally it’s a couple of times a week.”
Cambria Heights schools Superintendent Michael Strasser said the district has built on the lessons learned during the H1N1 flu and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) outbreaks in recent years.
“The experience of those past couple things sort of prepared us,” Strasser said. “We are taking precautions. Our custodians are doing extra cleaning and disinfecting desktops.”
The good news is that the flu season seems to be reaching its peak locally, and the illness itself has not been unusually severe in most patients, Memorial Medical Center’s chairman of emergency medicine said.
“I don’t believe it is any more severe than other years,” Dr. Daniel Wehner said from Memorial. “They don’t seem to be getting the complications like staphylococcal pneumonia or sepsis (widespread reaction to infection).”
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