By Beth Germano

BOSTON (CBS) – The sign of peace usually involves a handshake at Catholic Mass. But during services at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Boston there were a lot of waves of recognition.

“A lot of people don’t shake hands, they greet each other probably for that reason, to avoid passage of whatever,” said churchgoer Jerry Sullivan.

Right now it’s concern about the flu being passed from hand to hand. Purell dispensers are closely monitored for re-filling, but John Sharkey carries it anyway. “I’m a germaphobe, I have Purell all the time,” Sharkey says. “In church I don’t think about it at all.”

A severe strain of the flu is spiking in Massachusetts. Just this week, Swampscott music teacher Phyllis Gotlib died from complications of the flu. The emergency room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital is already seeing twice the number of influenza-like cases over last year. In the past two weeks, cases have risen 146% over the previous two weeks.

“It think it’s an earlier start than typical,” said Dr. Christopher Baugh, Director of Emergency Medicine. “We’ve been in it a while longer than usual, the severity of the symptoms is much higher than in the past season due to a particular strain that’s dominant.”

The Archdiocese of Maine has directed parishes to limit contact during mass. It’s something the Boston Archdiocese is considering and has done so in the past with outbreaks of illness. “I try to avoid hand contact,” said churchgoer Dulcie Lewis. “People may have a cold and not say anything then they have a cough and you don’t know what it is.”

Doctors don’t yet know if the virus is now peaking. “Typically we reach the peak in the middle to end of January. It’s unclear whether the worst is yet to come at this point,” said Dr. Baugh.

Which may mean altering some traditions to keep parishioners healthy.


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