ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–The Southern Baptist Disaster Relief network could be deployed if the Mexican swine flu epidemic escalates to the pandemic stage.
“Now is the time for Southern Baptists and churches to prepare,” said Mickey Caison, team leader for the North American Mission Board’s adult volunteer mobilization team in Alpharetta, Ga.
On Wednesday, April 29, the World Health Organization was reporting that nine countries had officially reported 148 cases of swine flu, with 26 in Mexico, including seven deaths, and 91 in the United States, with one death. According to various media reports, cases of swine flu have been confirmed in 10 states, with “probable” cases in several other states while, globally, it has been confirmed in New Zealand, Great Britain, Canada, Scotland, Spain, Israel, Austria and Germany.
The World Health Organization has raised its Pandemic Alert to Phase 5 (Phase 6 is the highest) which it describes as “a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.”
Caison, a longtime disaster relief expert within the SBC, said Southern Baptist Disaster Relief trained volunteers, numbering 90,000 across the country, and NAMB staff could be asked to serve in several ways if the flu continues to spread.
“For several years, we at NAMB have had a good working relationship with the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) since we’re both located in the Atlanta area,” Caison said. “And our state disaster relief directors also maintain close working relationships with state and local health departments.”
Early on, Caison said SBC disaster relief volunteers could be asked to help distribute vaccines, medications and help in inoculation centers. “It would take a lot of manpower to do this in the first three or four days,” he said.
Federal and state agencies also might want to utilize the SBC’s various communications channels to disseminate information quickly to the public.
“They could use our existing networks like Baptist Press, our NAMB Disaster Relief website and other DR and volunteer networks to get the word out from the CDC,” Caison said.
In one scenario using Mississippi as an example, Caison said vaccines could be shipped in to Jackson by a federal agency, and Mississippi Baptists would help distribute the medicine throughout the state.
“Jim Didlake, our DR director with the Mississippi Baptist Convention, has particularly strong relations with the state health and local health departments there. Our volunteers could be asked to physically unload the vaccine and help monitor the situation. We could also provide people to assist citizens coming into the inoculation centers and handle things like taking names, providing resources and offering snacks,” Caison said.
Caison was quick to add that SBC disaster relief teams would not launch feeding operations akin to responses to natural or manmade disasters.
“With a flu pandemic, you don’t want to congregate a crowd of people in one central place because of the potential of contamination and spreading the disease. Instead, we might do some feeding like Meals on Wheels where the meals are taken out to the people and left on doorsteps,” said Caison, adding that flu victims probably would be eating soups, Jell-O and other canned goods anyway.
With a flu pandemic, the federal government would strongly discourage the assembly of people, so work locations might close and employees might be asked to work from home; schools and churches likely would close as well.
Cliff Satterwhite, disaster relief director for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, already is meeting with the mayor and other officials of the city of Columbia. For four years, Satterwhite has been a member of South Carolina’s State Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Response Team.
“We’re a partner at the table on this team because South Carolina Baptist disaster relief is the largest volunteer disaster relief organization in the state,” Satterwhite said. “We have 6,800 trained volunteers, more than Red Cross and the Salvation Army. We come to the table with a lot of people.”
South Carolina Baptists, the other 41 state conventions and NAMB also have assets — feeding, shower and medical units — that could be mobilized if necessary. Overall, Caison said the SBC — its state convention DR teams and NAMB — has more than 2,000 units that can be deployed.
“A lot of people don’t take this seriously, because it always happens somewhere else,” Satterwhite commented. “They don’t take it seriously and don’t get alarmed if someone in Texas or New York has it.”
The South Carolina DR teams have been under considerable stress in 2009, he added, because in the last seven weeks, local volunteers have battled ice storms in Kentucky, several tornadoes in South Carolina, recent fires in Myrtle Beach, and soon could be involved in projects involving the flu epidemic.
“But we’ll be on standby if we’re called,” said Satterwhite, who has led South Carolina Baptists’ disaster relief program for 20 years.
“You really have to think about how you do everything,” Caison said of the potential for a large-scale pandemic. “Churches would have to rethink how they would minister to members and to their communities. Churches couldn’t hold worship services, would have to cancel their ball games — anything that congregates people.”
Satterwhite agreed. “This is when you’d have to get creative with your ministries,” he said. “Churches would have to do things differently. Since they would be discouraged from having worship services, they could stream their worship service via the Internet. Churches could maintain members’ giving with online payment systems.”
A key ministry churches would have to sustain is emotional and spiritual care for flu victims and their families, said Bruce Poss, disaster relief coordinator for NAMB.
“Chaplains would be greatly needed,” Poss said, “especially by those who might suffer serious illness or lose loved ones to the flu. Churches also would need to consider a sometimes-forgotten group — its shut-ins, disabled and the infirm.”
For additional information on preparing for an influenza pandemic, SBC churches can access several sources. For instance, click on www.namb.net and access “Disaster Relief Flu Guidelines.”
The Mississippi Baptist Convention also has a booklet called “If A Disaster Strikes, Are You Prepared?” available on its website, www.mbcb.org. The book has a lengthy section on “Preparing for Pandemic Influenza.”
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.