Flu concerns result in school, church closings

May 4, 2009

As the number of people infected with swine flu continues to increase nationwide, a small number of Episcopal schools and churches have decided to close temporarily. By Monday, the H1N1 virus had spread to 36 states, infecting 286 people (including one death), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Park City, Utah, canceled worship services on Sunday, May 3 "in support of our community's efforts to restrict the spread of the H1NI flu virus," according to the church's website. On May 2, Summit County health officials confirmed Park City's first case of swine flu.

"I've never cancelled Sunday services before, but the Summit County Health Department requested we do," said the Rev. Charles Robinson, St. Luke's rector, in a telephone interview, adding that all of Park City's religious communities cancelled weekend worship services at the request of local health officials.

St. Luke's remains open for 12-step meetings, Bible studies, committee meetings and other regular events this week and Robinson plans to hold services on Sunday, May 10, he said.

There are approximately 7,100 Episcopal churches in the U.S. and abroad.

Episcopal High School in Bellaire, Texas, closed on May 1 when it confirmed its first case of swine flu and plans to reopen on May 6 with a chapel service, according to an announcement posted on its website on May 4. Administrators originally planned to reopen the school on May 14, but county health officials determined it was safe to reopen the school this week. Teachers and staff return tomorrow, the announcement said.

Texas is reporting the second highest number of swine flu cases at 41, behind the 73 confirmed cases in New York, according to the CDC. The World Health Organization reported 1,085 cases of swine flu in 21 countries Monday. Mexico has reported 590 laboratory-confirmed human cases of infection, including 25 deaths.

Ascension Episcopal School in Lafayette, Louisiana, cancelled classes May 4 and 5 at its downtown, lower- and middle-school campus as a precaution after two students became sick with flu, said Laura Ann Edwards, the school's development director, in a telephone interview.

It's not clear whether the students have the H1N1 strain, Edwards added.

In Fort Worth, Texas, All Saints Episcopal School held classes as usual Monday, although Fort Worth Independent Public Schools were closed.

"We are not required to follow their lead, but often do when it's weather related," said Elizabeth Lamb, the school's communications manager, adding that the school is following the CDC's dismissal guidelines, which directs school officials to close if there is a confirmed case. Lamb also said the school is communicating with parents and local health officials.

There are about 1,100 Episcopal schools and early childhood education programs throughout the church, according to the National Association of Episcopal Schools.

According to a statement posted May 1 on the Episcopal Church's website, "As long as it is recommended that we go to school and work, it is also fine to go to church. Going to church provides community and offers comfort … The key is to make decisions based on local practices and safety issues, use common sense, stay informed, follow the advice of medical experts, and talk to your clergy if you have questions about worship service.

Information about preparing for a potential pandemic influenza outbreak is available on Episcopal Relief and Development's website here. The site carries a list of questions and answers about pandemic influenza and contains links to information and resources for church people in the areas of preparation, care-giving, liturgy and spiritual practice.

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