For Immediate Release: Sept. 30, 2008
Media Contact: Communication Office
Vermont Department of Health
BURLINGTON – The bicentennial history of the First Congregational Church in Burlington includes a grainy black-and-white photograph from 1918 of the chapel serving as an infirmary for children whose parents were too sick with influenza to take care of them.
The church, in the fall of 1918, closed off the chapel until the wave of illnesses had passed, and did not open it again for religious services until the room was “thoroughly cleaned and fumigated.”
Rev. Adrianne Carr, associate pastor of the First Congregational Church, the city’s oldest and largest church (founded in 1805), said it is unlikely that the church will ever again house a children’s infirmary – but if there is a need for it and health officials ask for assistance – the church has the space, could recruit nurses and volunteers, and could potentially provide the service upon request.
No one knows how a pandemic will play out,” Rev. Carr said. “All we can do is what seems the most appropriate at the time. We will use the best practices we can to try to keep it somewhat under control.”
Rev. Carr and every faith leader and health care provider in the state wishes they could predict how bad the next pandemic will be — as severe as the 1918 pandemic or milder, as in 1968. A pandemic is a worldwide spread of a new and severe strain of influenza for which people have little or no immunity, and for which there will be no vaccine available for months.
One important action Rev. Carr plans to take is to stay proactive in preparing for the possibility of a pandemic. For example, she hopes to educate the church’s more than 900 parishioners that, while coming together is the usual response in a time of crisis, during a pandemic people will be asked to stay apart. This will obligate the church to reach out to people who need help, even if it means providing service one home at a time.
“We will not be here in our ivory tower waiting for folks to come to us,” Rev. Carr said. “We have to go out into the community where the pain is. I strongly believe that the place of the religious community is to go where the need is greatest.”
The church will pay close attention to tracking the health and safety of lower-income church members and the elderly. When Rev. Carr learned that the Health Department was recommending — for people who are able to do so — that they stock up to stay home with a two-week supply of food in case of a pandemic, she thought of all the families in her congregation who may have trouble putting food on the table one week at a time.
“The immediate need will be to keep people fed and warm,” Rev. Carr said. “My biggest fear is that a pandemic will happen in a year such as this coming winter, when many people will be struggling to pay the fuel costs. Then a pandemic hits and people have to stay isolated. This would be extremely challenging for us.”
Rev. Carr is an active member of a committee of faith, civic, business and health care leaders called on by the Health Department to discuss pandemic flu preparations for the greater Burlington area. She is also active in the Joint Urban Ministry Project of 14 churches that work together to serve lower-income Vermonters and people who would be severely affected by a major disruption to support services.
A key goal for church leaders will be to stay in contact with anyone who might need help. If that involves calling everyone and placing bags of food outside of homes, that is what the church will do. Communication tools, unavailable to parishioners in 1918, will also play a key role.
“Thank God for cell phones,” Rev. Carr said.
September is National Preparedness Month, and state health officials are asking Vermonters in all walks of life to prepare for an extreme health emergency such as pandemic influenza by taking simple steps NOW to prepare: Practice good health manners: cover your cough, wash hands often and well, stay away from others when you're sick, and keep home and work surfaces clean. Be ready for an emergency: make personal and family preparedness plans, and stock up to stay home. Know your community and workforce plans.
Burlington is one of nine communities across the country participating as a "collaboratory" in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Pandemic Flu: Take the Lead campaign to encourage personal preparedness for an extreme health emergency. Reaching every member of the community is a priority of the campaign.
For more information, resources and tools, visit the Health Department's website at healthvermont.gov, then select pandemic flu.