Outbreak prevention in the congregation

Seasonal flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that occur each year, and change from year to year. It affects 10 – 25% of the population each year and is most severe in the very young and the very old. It is spread by infected respiratory airborne droplets and via contaminated hands and surfaces. Viruses can live on hands or in the air for up to 5 minutes and on hard surfaces for up to 2 days.

The spread of flu can be lessened by following some disciplined personal practices that will eventually become second nature. These are the same practices that need to be more rigorously implemented and reinforced at the time of an influenza pandemic.

Public Health experts estimate that these practices can reduce the spread of seasonal flu by as much as 20%, so these practices benefit everyone every fall, winter and spring in particular, especially in settings where people congregate and are in physical contact with each other or with common surfaces. (e.g. hand shakes, hugs, child care, using common washrooms, door hardware, railings, switches, kitchens, food preparation, etc.)

Normal practices:

Respiratory hygiene/cough etiquette

  • Influenza is most commonly spread when people cough or sneeze—droplets are sprayed from the mouth or nose into the air or onto hands when covering the mouth and/or nose.
  • You should always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue (if available) when you cough or sneeze. Discard the tissue immediately, or as soon as you can. Wash or sanitize your hands as soon as possible after coughing or sneezing.
  • Churches can encourage this practice by supplying tissues and waste baskets at strategic locations in foyers and other gathering areas (and in kitchens). Posters and flyers are available from the World Health Organization.
  • If no tissue is readily available, cough or sneeze into your bent elbow and not into your hand.
  • Custodial staff should wear disposable gloves when collecting and emptying waste baskets and other waste receptacles.

Hand cleaning

  • Because the most common spread of the virus is through hand transmission, it is important to get into the habit of washing your hands often with soap and warm water. Remove rings and other jewelry, use a sufficient amount of soap and warm water, lather well, palm to palm, between and around fingers and finger tips, wrists, under nails – wash for 10 – 20 seconds (this is much longer than you think, so try counting to 10 or 20 while washing to understand this time frame); rinse thoroughly under running water, dry by grabbing a single use towel or using an air dryer, turn off tap with the paper towel if available. Minimize touching dirty surfaces on departing.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, mouth and nose to as much an extent as possible.
  • Cover cuts with bandages and thoroughly clean nails.
  • Liquid soap in disposable containers is best. Reusable containers should be washed and dried before refilling. If not available, bar soap (use small bars) needs to be placed on a rack that allows water to drain. Supply a single use towel dispenser and a waste container at each washroom and kitchen sink.
  • Stress regular and repeated hand-washing in kitchens with people doing food preparation and/or handling dishes, cutlery and food. 
  • Place posters in all applicable languages reminding people about hand washing and proper methods at each sink location throughout the church, in washrooms and kitchens. Posters available at:
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    World Health Organization
  • When unable or inconvenient to wash hands, clean hands with hand sanitizer, if available. Your church should place dispensers at convenient gathering places in the church building. Some sanitizer suppliers will supply the dispenser at no charge in exchange for the church purchasing the sanitizers from them. This can also be arranged for the soap containers.

Annual influenza vaccination

  • Church staff and volunteers should get their flu shot each fall as provided by your Health Authority or other local providers. As well, they should get their pneumonia vaccinations when recommended. While the developers of this vaccine make an annual prediction of the most likely strain(s) of flu to appear the next winter, they don’t always get it correct. However, some of the strains covered by the vaccine will occur annually. As a result, the annual flu shot is recommended by health authorities as always having some benefit to the recipients and to the community at large. 

Custodial cleaning 

  • Rigorous cleaning practices before and after gatherings should be emphasized with cleaning staff or volunteers. This includes using a high-quality cleaning agent, cleaning of all door hardware, railings, water fountains, kitchen counters and other food preparation surfaces, and other surfaces that people normally touch when walking or congregating. Waste receptacles should also be emptied frequently. Wearing of disposable gloves while cleaning and emptying waste is a good practice to further protect the health of cleaning personnel. This level of cleaning is always important, but especially during the fall to spring seasonal flu period.
  • In terms of how a church can prepare, it would be good to have on hand a three-month supply of tissues; hand sanitizer dispensers and sanitizer; liquid hand soap and dispensers for all washroom and kitchen sinks; single-use paper towels and dispensers for all washroom and kitchen sinks; appropriate posters about cough etiquette, hand cleaning and flu shots in public areas, washrooms and kitchens; and readily available drinking water and dispensers. Develop or enhance relationships with suppliers, and be aware of alternate suppliers.

Stay home if sick

  • Church staff and volunteers need to use good judgement in determining to stay home if sick with the seasonal flu or if someone in the family is sick with the flu. Err on the side of containing and not transmitting your flu bug to others.


  • Good communication is important during seasonal flu period – general posters are available giving solid basic information to adults and children. These can be displayed in gathering places, including Sunday school and daycare areas in the church from fall to spring.
  • Posters:
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  2. World Health Organization

Personal and family preparedness

  • Communicating information about reducing the risk of transmitting flu will be beneficial to everyone, whether or not there is a pandemic. More information on personal and family preparedness can be found at Prevention In the Home.

Consider which church or church program gatherings are essential during a pandemic and curtail others for a safe period of time. Find alternate means of providing communication and services and programs of the congregation. See Adjusting Congregational Practices.

Implement a practice of social distancing during a pandemic period -- this includes hand-to-hand and hand-to-face touch such as handshaking and hugging. This will require clear communication to all congregants to suggest alternate means of greetings for the duration of a pandemic.

Special attention needs to be given about how to deal effectively with objects used during worship that are touched by many people, such as those used for communion, offerings, microphones, singing and the underlying rituals that engage these objects. Some changes in practice might be required.