Two weeks ago, Rev. James Fitzmaurice of Christ the King parish in Westmere, Albany, woke up with the flu.

"I felt awful," he said. "I had a fever for three days."

The pastor was far from the only Catholic in the Albany Diocese feeling the effects of the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the entire continental United States is experiencing widespread influenza for the first time in the 13 years of the current tracking system.

Experts say flu season might continue, due to an imperfect vaccine and steady cold weather.

Practices at Mass can heighten the chance of spreading germs like the flu virus: communal hand-holding during the "Our Father," shaking hands at the sign of peace and receiving the blood of Christ from the same cup at communion time, for instance.

This leaves parishioners in a difficult position: How can they attend Mass faithfully without catching or spreading an illness?

What to do?
"Take sensible precautions, like using hand sanitizer," advised Rev. Anthony Barratt, diocesan director of Prayer and Worship and pastor of of Holy Trinity parish in Hudson/Germantown.

Though the Diocese does not have set procedures for dealing with the spread of infection at Mass, Father Barratt said that Catholics should follow the suggestions of their own parishes and use common sense.

"Generally, people make sound decisions on these things," he noted.

Father Fitzmaurice didn't distribute communion when he was ill. A number of other parishes around the Albany Diocese have been placing notices in their weekly bulletins to advise parishioners on other ways to prevent spreading viruses.

For example, St. Joseph's/St. Michael's/Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Amsterdam published a bulletin item stating that, due to the flu outbreak, parishioners should "discontinue shaking hands during the sign of peace" for the time being, and nod or wave to those in neighboring pews instead.

St. Mary's in Glens Falls suggested that parishioners refrain from drinking from the cup at Mass if they are not feeling well or if they are worried about getting sick.

Rev. Thomas Morrette, pastor of St. Mary's, said people shouldn't feel guilty about not drinking from the cup: "The body of the Lord is present in both" species, he explained, but "the Precious Blood is still subject to the natural laws of science."

St. Vincent's parish in Coble­skill puts a notice in its bulletin each year around flu season. This year, there's a list of symptoms of the flu, ways of staying healthy (avoid touching your eyes; get a flu shot) and suggestions to help others stay healthy by covering your mouth when coughing and staying home if you are sick.

The parish started the bulletin notice at the time of the H1N1 virus outbreak in 2009.

"I put it in every year," said Rachael Rys, office manager for St. Vincent's. "We also have our eucharistic ministers use hand sanitizer before distributing communion."

Father Barratt noted that other parishes in the area, such as St. Ambrose in Latham and his parish, Holy Trinity, have also added hand sanitizer stations in their churches to encourage extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist to cleanse their hands before communion.

Marge Jones is the pastoral care coordinator and nurse for Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Latham. She said it's good practice for eucharistic ministers and parishioners to use hand sanitizer, and for people to avoid shaking hands if they are sick.

Don't panic
However, she noted, it's important not to go overboard or panic.

"We touch things all the time," she told The Evangelist. "Think about going to the market [and] how many things you touch. I just say that, if you're not feeling up to snuff, don't come" to Mass.

Most importantly, Catholics should not feel guilty for missing Mass when they're sick, or for rejecting someone's offer to shake hands during the sign of peace.

"Don't be offended if [someone] doesn't want to shake hands," said Father Fitzmaurice. And "don't come in if you're sick. It's perfectly fine."