With the United States in the grip of one of the worst influenza seasons in years, chaplains and pastoral ministers are feeling the effects.
Nursing homes in North Dakota are facilitating FaceTime visits for residents whose family members are ill or just living in communities where the flu is running rampant. Other nursing home residents are receiving Communion from extraordinary ministers in their rooms instead of having Mass or community services; prayers and spiritual music are broadcast to their rooms through the public-address system.
Hospital chaplains are busy ministering emergency rooms that are more crowded than usual, trying to be there for those who are suffering and their families.
“If things get really crowded here, it gets a little bit more stressful because of the waiting,” said Robert Andorka, a chaplain at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. “Waiting to be seen, waiting to be admitted, waiting to be discharged — everything takes longer.”
The chaplain staff at Loyola accompanies both patients and staff who are trying to cope with challenging conditions and, often, with being sick themselves.
On Feb. 8, two of the chaplains — on a staff of about eight — were home sick with the flu, Andorka said. “We tell people to go home and take care of themselves so they can recover when they’re not feeling well,” Andorka said, “but then everybody else has to cover for them. So in that way it affects the whole staff.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the influenza virus was widespread in 48 states as of the week ending Feb. 3, and causing high levels of illness in 43 states. Sixty-three children had died from the flu by that date.
While the agency doesn’t keep an exact count of adult flu deaths, the CDC estimates that up to 56,000 people die from flu or its complications in severe flu seasons.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a page on its website about the flu. It recommends that local church communities remind people not to receive the Blood of Christ from the chalice and to offer the Sign of Peace with a simple nod if they feel ill; in areas where the outbreak is widespread, parishes may refrain from offering the Communion cup and ask everyone to refrain from physical contact at the Sign of Peace.
The page also urges everyone to get the flu vaccine, as that is the best way to prevent the spread of the disease.
‘It’s not too late’
Phyllis Lowery, a faith community nurse with Emory Health Care in Atlanta, said that the nurses who work with congregations — Catholic, Episcopalian and others — have been encouraging all those measures. “We mainly advised ill parishioners to stay at home,” she said.
Michele Thorpe, director of nursing for Prince of Peace Health Care Center in Ellendale, North Dakota, said her staff and local public health authorities are still advising people who have not been vaccinated to get a flu shot.
“It’s not too late,” she said.
The flu hasn’t actually struck the nursing home where she works, Thorpe said, although plenty of residents have suffered from flu-like symptoms despite testing negative for the influenza virus. As a result, the home has redoubled its prevention efforts, encouraging hand-washing, hand sanitizing and wearing masks.
Nearby communities haven’t been so lucky, she said, and that has been reflected in the number of calls she’s gotten from people saying they can’t visit their loved ones.
“They’ll say ‘My grandchildren have been here and they have the flu, and I don’t want to bring it to you, so I can’t visit Mom,’” Thorpe said. “And we say, ‘Thank you.’”
Connected and protected
To help residents stay connected, staff members will help them connect with family members on the telephone or bring residents iPads so they can use FaceTime. “That’s worked pretty well,” she said.
David Allen, senior consultant for spiritual care at Minnesota-based Benedictine Health Systems, which includes Prince of Peace Health Care Center, said some of the system’s 36 care facilities have had whole wings go down with the flu, to the point he’s told priests who were scheduled to come in and celebrate Mass to stay away.
That decision is not just for the priests; it’s also for the residents and patients who are not sick. Other times, priests can’t come because they are sick and don’t want to spread the virus to elderly residents, who are more vulnerable to serious complications, Allen said.
In some cases, extraordinary ministers can offer Communion one-on-one, he said, and residents and patients can join in prayers from their own rooms. But that’s hard on the patients. “They like to go to Mass,” he said, adding that chaplains and ministers have to be vigilant about not spreading germs. “It can be difficult, because pastoral ministers usually are eager to offer a handshake, or to touch someone.”
Andorka said he and other hospital chaplains are working to support not just the patients but their families, as well. It’s especially hard when a child is sick and in the hospital, he said.
“It’s like they’re trying to live a double life, in the hospital with their child and on the outside, trying to work and take care of everyone else,” he said.
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.