Faith and the flu

Dr. Julie McKee, a physician in Family Medicine and Holistic Medicine in the Integrative Medicine Clinic at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Courtesy Photo/University of Texas Medical Branch

Couples tend to avoid fine dining when they are plagued by constant coughing. Families probably won’t visit the movies if several of their noses need frequent wiping. The elderly and others with compromised immune systems may limit their visitors to those who are clearly healthy. And a school visiting nursing homes may not include symptomatic children when it stops by to share.

But on Sundays, many of these groups will mix at church. And it will be volunteers, not school nurses, who will be confronted with the weekly dilemma of which babies can be allowed in the nursery and which should be sent home.

What’s a church to do? Dr. Julie McKee is a lifelong churchgoer who is also well-trained to answer such questions. She’s a professor and part of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Galveston’s University of Texas Medical Branch.

“We’ve had a lot of focus on the flu,” she said. “And it’s changed things. When I was a kid we went to church no matter what, but now more people are willing to stay home when they are sick.”

But not every runny nose represents a congregational problem.

“If you are sick or your kid’s sick, stay home,” she said. “But allergies aren’t contagious, and kids shouldn’t be kicked out if they just have allergies.”

Some churches have training programs for children’s workers that include cleaning and hygiene information, but common sense is adequate for most Sunday school workers.

“The same principals apply at home or church,” McKee said. “Wipe toys down, wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer when needed.”

Back in the sanctuary, McKee said that communion, either with germ-killing wine or using individual, disposable cups of grape juice, is safe.

It’s the traditional “passing of the peace” or in-service greeting period that may require some disease-avoiding discretion.

“One of the reasons we go to church is to experience community with God and our friends,” she said. “But it is also wise to be prudent if you’re worried about shaking all those hands.”

If you’re short on hand sanitizer after the handshaking and hugging, McKee said it’s best to resist touching your face since that’s the most common path for the cold and other easily transmissible viruses.

But McKee said that the most important step for both old and young is still vaccination. Most parents are aware of the schedule for children, but McKee said there are also lists for older adults. Although faith may remain firm, the effectiveness of some vaccines will wane during a lifetime so immunization against pneumonia and whooping cough may be indicated for some seniors.

“The best thing for everyone is to get a flu shot, and if you’re over 65 or frail, get a pneumonia shot,” she said. “Hygiene is important, but the key to community prevention is getting your shots.”

Rick Cousins can be reached at

A list of vaccinations can be found at

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