— -- A flu outbreak sweeping the country is causing people and institutions to take precautions against its spread, including a Catholic diocese in New York state that has issued healthy guidelines for its churches and schools.
In hopes of stopping the bug from spreading, the Diocese of Buffalo in New York has issued several directives, including suspending two practices during Mass: Sharing wine during Holy Communion and shaking hands as a gesture of peace during the service.
Bishop Richard J. Malone issued the guidelines after the New York State Department of Health announced the number of influenza cases in the state spiked more than 50 percent last week.
"I urge the clergy and faithful to observe necessary standard precautions to protect the health of others during this flu season," Malone said in a statement to all 164 parishes and 53 schools in the Diocese of Buffalo. "The best way to prevent the spread of contagious diseases is to practice good hygiene, such as washing your hands frequently with soap and water."
The New State Department of Health announced on Thursday that 7,779 new laboratory-confirmed influenza cases were reported to the state last week, an increase of 54 percent from the previous week. About 1,759 people statewide were hospitalized with the flu last week, state health officials said.
Besides suspending the distribution of wine during Holy Communion, Bishop Malone advised priests to be careful while giving congregants the sanctified wafers of bread, "consecrated hosts." "Ministers should also wash their hands before Mass in preparation for the distribution of consecrated hosts," he wrote.
Other directives included that parishioners should bow to each other rather than shake hands as a sign of peace during services, and that those who are ill should not feel "bound by the Sunday Mass obligation"
Since early October, the influenza outbreak has been widespread in all states, except Hawaii, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At least 37 children across the nation have died from the flu this season, according to the CDC.
The alarming increase in flu cases in New York prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to signed an executive order on Thursday allowing pharmacists to administer flu vaccines to children ages 2 to 18 years old and boosting access to the flu vaccine for adults across the state.
"With flu cases reaching epidemic proportions in New York, we must do everything in our power to fight this virus and keep New Yorkers safe," Cuomo said.
Last week, 1 in 15 doctor visits were for symptoms of the flu, the CDC said. That's the highest level since the swine flu pandemic in 2009.
The CDC said Friday that hospital stays and deaths from the flu among the elderly so far haven't been as high as in some other recent flu seasons. However, hospitalization rates for people 50 to 64 — Baby Boomers, mostly — has been unusually high, CDC officials said.