U.S. Catholic health care workers, dioceses respond to Ebola crisis

Members of a hazardous material team prepare to enter the apartment Oct. 13  of the health worker who was infected with the Ebola virus at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. Nina Pham, a Vietnamese Catholic nurse, contracted the deadly virus while treating a patient at the hospital. A prayer service was held Oct. 12 for Pham at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Fort Worth, where she and her family are active members. (CNS photo/Jaime R. Carrero, Reuters)
Members of a hazardous material team prepare to enter the apartment Oct. 13 of the health worker who was infected with the Ebola virus at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. Nina Pham, a Vietnamese Catholic nurse, contracted the deadly virus while treating a patient at the hospital. A prayer service was held Oct. 12 for Pham at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Fort Worth, where she and her family are active members. (CNS photo/Jaime R. Carrero, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Tabiri Chukunta has been trying to get the word out to the West African community in New Jersey that their families and friends in Liberia need to put on hold, at least temporarily, cultural traditions of greeting people affectionately and washing bodies of the dead.

For now, Chukunta, executive director of community outreach at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey — a long way from his Nigerian homeland — feels the educational campaign has been effective.

As he put it: “cultural responses have been sustained for now” particularly as people begin to understand that avoiding certain practices can save lives.

Since a Sept. 12 meeting at the Catholic hospital of local West African community leaders and officials from the New Jersey Department of Health, the consistent message has been the need to take precautions against the spread of Ebola.

That means being alert to symptoms of the disease and being aware of the health of others especially when traveling to West Africa or being in contact with those who have recently traveled there.

As he sees it, those traveling and those welcoming guests have been “equally cautious” because “everybody is trying to protect everybody.”

And with two recent cases of Ebola in the United States, Chukunta said he is now getting calls from family members in Nigeria urging him to be careful.

“Ebola is human problem not a West African problem that all of us united can eradicate,” he told Catholic News Service Oct. 17.

Chukunta, who has been with St. Peter’s for 30 years after starting there as a security guard, said he is proud of the hospital for “staying in front of this” disease that has gained worldwide attention.

Being in front — either with discussions of cultural practices or medical precautions — seems key to curbing Ebola’s spread.

Dr. Robert Heaney, associate dean for clinical affairs at St. Louis University School of Medicine, said hospitals need to “screen for risk as far forward as possible” — not after someone has been sitting in the waiting room for a while. Which means, questions asked at the emergency rooms’ registration desks need to determine if someone is an Ebola risk and if so that person should be immediately isolated.

He said it’s important to be sure the entire hospital staff knows that there are risks — not only of Ebola, but flu viruses, hepatitis B, HIV infections and MERS, which is a viral respiratory illness — that are to be taken seriously.

Heaney, who is on the planning team for the Ebola response for SLUCare, the clinical arm of the St. Louis University School of Medicine, said he cannot emphasize enough with students and residents the need to practice using protective gear in caring for infectious patients — particularly putting it on and taking it off.

The first time this gear is worn should not be when caring for an infectious patient, he told CNS Oct. 17.

He also stressed that nurses, on the front lines, especially need proper training.

“We always need to be vigilant and we always need to be prepared,” he added.

On the side of vigilance, the dioceses of Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, have issued guidelines for liturgies because of concerns about the flu and Ebola viruses. The two recent cases of Ebola in the state involved nurses working with a patient who died of Ebola at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

One of the nurses, Nina Pham, grew up attending Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Fort Worth, but has not been to that church recently. She is currently receiving care at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The other nurse, Amber Vinson, is currently hospitalized in Atlanta.

Pat Svacina, director of communications for the Diocese of Fort Worth, pointed out that the guidelines were the same as those issued by the diocese during previous flu outbreaks. The liturgical adaptations urge Catholics not to hold hands while saying the Our Father or to shake hands during the sign of peace. It also asked parishes not to distribute wine from the Communion chalice.

A statement from the Diocese of Dallas urged parish priests to use common sense and carefully wash their hands and Communion vessels. It said parishes did not need to refrain from using the Communion chalice, but individuals should not receive the consecrated wine if they do not feel well.

The Dallas statement said that holy water and baptismal fonts do not pose a threat for Ebola transmission since the virus is not transmitted through water but said the fonts should be kept clean.

Dallas Bishop Kevin J. Farrell wrote in his Oct. 15 blog that he was praying for the two nurses and their families and said the situation is a reminder of the “countless hours of selfless service that nurses, doctors and other health care professionals and institutions provide in protecting us and our community.”

“This is a time for our community to respond with calmness and compassion,” he added.

— By Carol Zimmermann, Catholic News Service.