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Catholic churches adjust Holy Communion to guard against flu

Some Catholic parishes are changing communion and other Mass rituals in an effort to avoid spreading flu germs. WJAR's Mario Hilario reports.

Even Holy Communion is not immune from the flu.

Some Catholic Churches across the country have stopped offering parishioners wine from a shared chalice to prevent germs from spreading as the flu continues to plague most of the nation.

And that's not the only change worshippers may see at Mass.

"To refrain from shaking hands during rite of peace, I invited them to just turn and verbally exchange a greeting," Msgr. John Darcy of St. Sebastian Church in Providence, R.I., told WJAR.

The New York Archdiocese sent out its annual flu-season reminder Monday, asking pastors in its 400 parishes to take "common-sense precautions" such as frequent hand-washing or holding back the chalice as they see fit, spokesman Joseph Zwilling said.

In Abilene, Texas, the pastor of Holy Family Church announced last weekend that there would be no drinking from the cup or hand-shaking.

Without prompting, parishioners who normally hold hands during the singing of the Lord's Prayer chose not to, said church business manager Gail Wheeler.

"People are very understanding," she said. "We have a lot of elderly people in our parish and a lot of families with young children."

Some religious leaders said they make adjustments for the flu every year. Others said that this year's particularly bad outbreak had led them to tinker with the rituals -- much like sports teams abandoned post-game handshakes during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.

The virus has already killed 20 children this season and put thousands of people in the hospital. Federal officials have said they are optimistic the number of cases will drop off soon, but noted that the flu is unpredictable and could spike again this winter.

While many churches received directives from their diocesan leaders, at least one priest got advice from a more secular source.

Father Brian Kaskie of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in McComb, Miss., said he was at a routine medical appointment three weeks ago when his doctor suggested he take steps to protect his flock.

"We were on the front end of it," said Kaskie, who won't offer the chalice until the outbreak is over. "We didn't wait on the bishop."

The flu has shown up in just about every state and many hospitals are overloaded with sick patients. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the virus's ability to morph into new forms makes it difficult to develop full immunity. NBC's Tom Costello reports.