As Catholics take part in Mass tomorrow, the Diocese of Pittsburgh is urging parishioners to focus their thoughts not just on the heavens, but also on their hygiene.
Despite the fact that no confirmed cases of the swine flu have occurred in Allegheny County, the diocese is one of several institutions around the region taking precautions.
Schools and day care centers have sent letters to parents urging that sick children stay home.
In church tomorrow, used tissues should be placed in pockets or purses, not on pews and hymnals, the diocese said. During the "sign of peace," a simple bow is an acceptable substitute for a handshake or embrace. And ministers are being reminded not to wipe their mouths with the "purificator" cloth used to clean the wine chalice and never to use it as a handkerchief.
"We are God's people and we take part in the heavenly liturgy, but we remain part of the human family in its earthly pilgrimage," the diocese said.
At Children's Hospital, officials are more concerned about an earthly pilgrimage of patients to the emergency room, especially as the hospital moves today to its new location in Lawrenceville.
The hospital has seen about a 10 percent increase in emergency room volume since the swine flu epidemic began, said Kate Felmet, medical director of pandemic response at Children's Hospital. About 20 patients per day at this point are coming in worried about the swine flu.
"There is no need to show up to either your doctor's office or the hospital," she said, noting that the treatment for the disease, an anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu, can be ordered over the phone if a physician deems it necessary.
The only reason to come into the hospital is the same one as during a seasonal flu: if a patient has a persistent high fever or seizures, is having trouble breathing or is vomiting without being able to keep down food or fluids.
Emergency rooms around the region have implemented procedures designed to separate possible swine flu patients from the rest of the population.
At Allegheny General Hospital, for example, patients with flu symptoms who have had contact with people in the ever-expanding area affected by swine flu are isolated from the general waiting room, said Andrew Sahud, chairman of the infection prevention committee.
The West Penn Allegheny Health System is advising its primary care doctors to tell patients who have symptoms possibly matching the swine flu to stay home. If they must see their doctors, primary care physicians should schedule them toward the end of the day and usher them immediately into exam rooms.
"Call us, but stay home," advised Sarah Springer, a pediatrician at Pediatric Alliance in Greenfield.
Dr. Felmet believes that it is "inevitable" that the region will start seeing swine flu cases, possibly as early as this weekend. Given that, she advises caution for people who need to come to the emergency room for any reason, urging them to leave siblings and other family members at home, if possible.
She also advises those who are healthy, but scared, not to ask their primary care physicians for preventative Tamiflu, noting that local pharmacies already have little to no supply of the drug left.
"People are worried out of proportion to the actual risk, but I also think that could change," she said. "There's just a lot we don't know about the virus. We don't know what the ultimate severity of this will be."
n Obama optimistic swine flu outbreak is manageable. Page A-2
Anya Sostek can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1308.