Flu Season: Statistics and Liturgical Consequences

By: Adriana Watkins


The United States has faced a particularly dire flu season this winter, with the number of cases rising weekly from November into February. All regions of the country have reported higher-than-normal levels of flu activity, according to the CDC, with the expected total of hospitalizations reaching the hundreds of thousands. The peak seems to be leveling off, though officials warn the flu will still continue to circulate in the weeks to come.    

The highest incidence of flu has occurred­­—in order­­—among the elderly, middle-aged adults, and young children. During most seasons, children rank directly below the elderly, but this year, an average of 80 in 10,000 of the middle-aged group was hospitalized, compared to 52 in the pediatric group. Still, all three demographics have struggled; at least 97 children have died of flu-related illnesses, and the number is still expected to increase.


The efficacy of the flu vaccine has been called into question, with some outlets reporting a 25% rate of success in preventing illness. However, the CDC still recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months receive the vaccination.


Illness has its consequences in the Catholic liturgy as well. Every year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) suggests measures that dioceses can take to prevent of the flu. Its formal recommendations are to avoid making physical contact during the Sign of Peace, and to ask sick parishioners not to receive from the chalice. Specific dioceses may take further measures if their area is experiencing a bad outbreak.


Boston is one of the dioceses that has adopted these measures. Cardinal Seán O’Malley issued a memo requesting that holy water fonts be cleaned regularly to prevent the virus from accumulating there. Priests should practice good hygiene and wash their hands before and after distributing Communion and should take care not to touch the mouths or tongues of parishioners while doing so. Lastly, parishes have been urged not to offer the chalice. Masses at Boston College have temporarily suspended the distribution under both species in accordance with the Archdiocese’s statements. When the flu season ends, Church practices will return to normal.


The Communion mandates may be theologically confusing at first glance. Though the chalice is not offered to the congregation, the Blood is still consecrated during the Mass and consumed by the priest. This does not present any obstacle to the validity of the Mass. Even when a parishioner receives only the Host, he or she receives both the Body and Blood of Christ. Communion during flu season is not an incomplete Communion.


During all seasons, parishioners who are ill are exempt from the Sunday obligation and should stay home until they are well again. This applies to the flu as well as to other contagions.


If you have not received your flu vaccine, the CDC recommends you do so, despite its lower-than-average efficacy. Though the flu season will be ending soon, there will be many chances in the meantime to become sick. If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, seek medical care and remain home from school or work.

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