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Presbyterians respond cautiously to swine flu outbreak

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance posts general guidelines

May 4, 2009

LOUISVILLE

With swine flu making headlines across the world, many people — including Presbyterians — are taking steps to reduce their chances of contracting the disease.

In a televised press conference April 29, President Obama discussed swine flu and its possible effects on U.S. schools.

“Our public health officials have recommended that schools with confirmed or suspected cases of this flu strongly consider temporarily closing,” he said.

One school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has decided to do just that.

The Presbyterian Pan American School, in Kingsville, TX, announced changes to its end-of-school dates and closing procedures April 29.
On that day, the school, a mission agency of the Synod of the Sun with covenant agreements with the synod, the PC (USA) and the national church in Mexico, closed its campus to all visitors from outside the United States. Of the school’s 140 students, most are from Mexico or Latin America, said President James Matthews, adding that about 20 are from Mexico City. According to the World Health Organization, Mexico has reported 26 cases of human infection, including seven deaths, as of April 29.  

“We’re not worried about swine flu,” Matthews said. “We are concerned about the potential misunderstanding that could arise if we have parents coming from Mexico.”

Instead of having parents come from Mexico to pick up their children for summer break, Pan American will provide transportation to drop-off locations on the Texas-Mexico border. Students from more distant countries will be transported to airports to fly home.

The college preparatory school also changed its dates for finals. Instead of allotting two weeks for finals — one for seniors and one for underclassmen — the school will have just one week of finals from May 4-8.

The school is also considering changing the graduation date for the class of 2009; that change will be announced next week, Matthews said.

The school’s campus is on an isolated 700-acre ranch, Matthews said, adding that students are in a safe and isolated environment. Pan American staff are familiar with health protocols and are monitoring updates from state, national and international health organizations.

Matthews said parents have reacted positively to the changes, and that students and faculty are “relieved” and are working as a united campus. When he announced the changes April 29, Matthews opened the meeting with Psalm 91, which includes the verse “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.”

Another Presbyterian organization adjusted its normal routine in reaction to swine flu.

Walnut Grove Community Presbyterian Church, in the Sacramento Presbytery, celebrated communion differently this month. Instead of partaking in the church’s usual method of coming to the front of the sanctuary, tearing a piece from a common loaf of bread and a dipping it in a common cup, participants took pre-cut pieces of bread and drank from individual cups. They still came to the front of the sanctuary, but did so row by row instead of all at once.

Pastor Larry Emery said he decided to change the process to reduce the possibility of sharing germs. As for next month’s communion, the session will make a decision together.

“It was being careful without being excessive,” Emery said, adding that he got mostly positive feedback from congregants. “‘The change didn’t affect my experience of communion at all,’” Emery was told by several people. 

Sacramento Presbytery has not taken any official action regarding swine flu, said the Rev. Jay Olson, associate for mission support at the presbytery.

“Each church is certainly free to make its own decision,” she said, adding that the presbytery has been referring people to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Web site.

PDA has posted some general information about pandemic flu and its different stages, as well as how congregations can respond to swine flu. 
The PC (USA) is also monitoring international conditions that could affect the 350 people — mission personnel and their dependents — living abroad. At orientations and other gatherings for mission personnel, mission leaders have provided information about the church’s policies and procedures regarding pandemic flu.

One such policy is a directive to activate the response team once Stage 4 of the World Health Organization’s six-stage pandemic alert system was reached. The team became active on April 27, the day the director general of WHO declared a Stage 4. The pandemic reached Stage 5 on April 29. Mission personnel are encouraged to call or e-mail the team with questions or concerns.

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