Swine flu threat prompts change

Schools, churches emphasize ways to prevent flu spread

BY RACHEL SWICK | MIDDLETOWN, PA | November 17, 2009

Ninth grader Melissa Young gets the nasal spray vaccination for swine flu during a clinic held recently at Middletown (PA) Area Middle School.
Credit: DNN/Rachel Swick

Joe Lupia, of this central Pennsylvania town, was concerned about sending his twin sons on a mission trip to Mexico this past summer because of the perceived threat of swine flu. His sons missed out on the trip, and today Lupia said he is not sure his concerns were justified.

“At the time, we didn’t know much about swine flu,” said Lupia. “We didn’t know what would happen. It scared us, but since then we have become less concerned.”

But as the family learned more about the disease, it concluded the threat shouldn’t stop them from visiting potential colleges.

“We ended up visiting about six to seven colleges this summer and fall and knowing about the swine flu didn’t prevent us from going,” Lupia said. “The twins are going to get the swine flu vaccine when it becomes available to them.”

As athletes on both the baseball and football teams, Mike and Aaron Lupia know about personal hygiene. But, now with the swine flu affecting many students in their school, they take an extra effort to wash their hands and avoid touching potentially infected surfaces, including doorknobs.

“They got a regular flu shot in September at their doctor’s office,” said Lupia. “And, their mom is driving them crazy with washing their hands and using the sanitizers at school. Also they take lots of vitamins.”

For Lupia and many other families coping with the threat of H1N1 flu, commonly known as swine flu, it is about doing everything possible to prevent children from getting the disease.

Any high-traffic area such as schools, locker rooms and even churches could contribute to the spread of swine flu. But all of these organizations are taking special roles in educating citizens about the prevention of swine flu.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) keeps its members updated on current and ongoing disasters. Included in the list of disasters is H1N1.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared swine flu a pandemic on June 11. Since then, the spread has been categorized as a Phase 6 pandemic, which means that it will impact nearly every nation. Almost as soon as the threat level was raised, the ELCA released several resources for congregations to educate themselves on the swine flu.

“The basic actions for preparing a congregation for a flu pandemic are simply the basic actions of any disaster preparedness,” said the Rev. Kevin Massey who is the Director of Lutheran Disaster Response.

“We believe that every congregation should make at least basic preparation for this potential.”

Each congregation is different, said Massey, meaning that each will deal differently with the changes swine flu could bring to communication, worship, pastoral care, leadership and community outreach.

Parish nurses are working to inform parishioners as well, said Massey. They are key in prevention education; and once the vaccines do become available, they are working with health organizations to provide the vaccine to congregation members.

Churches with parish nurses are receiving updated information regularly from organizations including the International Parish Nurse Resource Center based in St. Louis, Missouri.

In addition to basic information about swine flu, they also talk about using electronic means to pray and worship with sick members of the church.

“The National Council of Churches has created a very good piece for congregations that covers the bases. We put together a one-page flyer for parish nurses to use on bulletin boards that is generic for signs, symptoms, and basic do's/don’ts,” said Mary L. Slutz, symposium and resource coordinator for the International Parish Nurse Resource Center.

“We are promoting caution and sensible behavior regarding prevention and minimizing the spread of this virus.”

In a check-list sent out to congregations by the International Parish Nurses Association, it asks church leaders to make sure contact lists are up-to-date, so that phone numbers of congregants are easy to find. It also suggests calling those who are ill to make sure they have everything they need.

“During flu season: we discourage handshaking and hugging,” states the guide. “Remind everyone to wash their hands every time they cough or sneeze, and to cough or sneeze into their arm, not their hand. Have tissues, trashcans, and hand sanitizers handy in gathering spots and model using them.”

Massey said some congregations within the ELCA have stopped doing the ‘passing of the peace’ where they hug and greet fellow parishioners.

“Congregations have already noted that there have been changes including just talking to their neighbor instead of hugging,” said Massey. “Some congregations have the pastor visually wash his or her hands before the communion. Other congregations stopped using the common cup. All these changes are just a way to lessen the anxiety of the congregation.”

But Massey said he hopes these changes do not continue long-term after the threat of swine flu has passed.

“I think after this passes people will go back to shaking hands and hugging when greeting others,” Massey said. “I hope we come out as a people that are more prepared. And, I hope in the wake of this we all feel closer and feel more of a connection to our neighbor.”

Prevention is key

During the last week of October, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that swine flu numbers remain high, with 48 states reporting multiple cases of H1N1.

Prevention specialists, both at the federal level and in state health departments, are encouraging schools to provide vaccines to children ages five through nine years old first.

Lori Suski, assistant superintendent for the Middletown Area School District, outside Harrisburg, Pa., said her district was one of the first in the area to receive its supply of swine flu vaccines.

The district made its request through the state health department and late in October received 3,000 inoculations.

“About two weeks ago, around the last week of October, our absentee rate had steadily increased,” said Suski. “We were around 13 percent absent. Unfortunately that was before we received the vaccines. Since then, it has remained high, but has started to go down.”

Suski said the educators and staff at the district were all trained on how to talk to students about swine flu.

“We’ve been doing a lot with swine flu education since the beginning of the school year. We’ve showed videos on hand-washing and we have a lot of posters up, telling students to avoid situations of touching,” Suski said. “We have hand sanitizer available throughout the school. We’ve been teaching students to sneeze or cough into the crook of their arm, rather into their hands as they have been taught in the past. We are also encouraging them not to touch their faces.”

School districts are informing parents to keep their children home if they have a fever. And, not to allow the student to return to school until he or she has been fever free for at least 24 hours without using fever-reducing medications.

Now that swine flu is widespread, many doctors are not diagnosing it as much anymore. Calls to physician’s offices have been so frequent, that medical personnel are telling everyone to stay home if they have a fever and rest, said Suski.

“We have used a lot of the CDC resources on their Website,” said Suski. “We were anticipating that this form of flu could become problematic, but so far we’ve been feeling that here it isn’t as bad, compared to what we’ve heard from other places.”

Suski said the students are reminded daily to keep up the good personal hygiene efforts of washing hands frequently or using a hand sanitizer. She said she hopes this lesson is a lasting one.

“I am hopeful that these good practices will continue because we will soon be entering prime flu season and these same techniques will prevent the flu also,” said Suski. “I think if anything this swine flu season has heightened the awareness of preventing the spread by using good personal hygiene techniques.”

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