Archived Sections, National Lutheran News

Churches find practical ways to prepare for H1N1 pandemic

Warnings for how to be prepared for the H1N1 pandemic have filled the television, Internet, radio, and print media over the course of the last year. As of June 2009, the H1N1 virus was officially classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization. And, according to the Center for Disease Control Web site, influenza (including H1N1) is widespread in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa; and Wisconsin and North Dakota are currently experiencing regional outbreaks of influenza.
So, what does this mean for congregations? How can they best prepare parishioners to remain safe and healthy during cold and flu season, especially in light of an H1N1 pandemic?
This year, with the outbreak of H1N1, many churches and other religious organizations are placing even greater emphasis on the topic of disease prevention and treatment. Karen Treat, parish nurse at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, says it is important for churches to teach people to be individually responsible, including encouraging people to stay home if they are sick. “I think [prevention] is a lot about personal responsibility,” she says.
Treat stresses that good hand hygiene is critical in preventing the spread of disease, including having hand sanitizers readily available. She also emphasizes the importance of wiping down surfaces regularly and practicing proper cough etiquette to prevent others from getting sick.
TRUST, an interdenominational organization of 17 churches in the Twin Cities metro area, has worked with parish nurses in several congregations providing flu shot clinics and H1N1 training.
“We are trying to reclaim the concept of churches being a place of healing,” said Pat McLaughlin, parish nurse at TRUST. Through their ministry, TRUST is educating congregations about practical things people should do in case of a pandemic. Most sessions are held during or between church services or in the evenings.
McLaughlin said she met one woman in an H1N1 workshop who said her entire family came down with H1N1 and was basically quarantined to their house for a week. The woman told her, “I don’t know what we would have done without our church [delivering us meals to our doorstep] or our neighbor.”
More information about TRUST, including their parish nursing program, is available at
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Minneapolis, has been actively involved in a neighborhood group with 16 other churches seeking ways to answer the issue as a community. Diane Waarvik, director of health ministries, says the congregation has implemented many simple, but practical, tactics to educate members about H1N1, as well as what preventative measures to practice. These measures include:
* A list of pandemic tips gathered from the Center for Disease Control was placed on the congregation’s Web site (www.bethlehem- Through the site, members have easy access to flu pandemic resources, including tips to prepare for a pandemic and a list of Web sites to visit to learn more about pandemic and catastrophic event planning from both a medical and religious perspective. * Members of the congregation were provided with handouts about common sense practices for disease prevention. * The practice of shaking hands as a greeting was discontinued. While Waarvik says they originally made hand shaking optional, many members found this led to awkward situations and asked to be guided one way or the other on the practice. * Hand sanitizers were placed throughout the church. * Flu shot clinics are being held. * A health and safety fair was held earlier this fall, giving members the chance to ask questions about H1N1 and other health concerns.
Waarvik warns that while “people are inundated and think it is overkill, we need to enforce why it is so important.” She says the best way to do this is to provide people with the most current information possible, as well as dispel any myths about the disease.
One area Waarvik says Bethlehem has not changed is the way they serve communion, which is by intinction. However, she says, they are adamant about communion servers washing their hands before serving communion. She notes, “We’ll change this if need be.”
“To teach and to heal is part of our calling,” Waarvik said. “Our commandment is to preach, teach, and heal. We are stewards of our money and of our bodies. We need to take care of our bodies so we don’t get ill and prevent others from getting ill.”