Central Virginia Health District Leverages Faith-Based Partnerships during Public Health Crisis

Submitted By

Kerry W. Gateley, M.D., MPH, Director; Lindsey Cawood, MPH, CPH, CHES, Community Health Planner and Public Information Officer; and Haley Phillips Evans, RN, BSN, District Epidemiologist
Central Virginia Health District, Virginia
February 27, 2015

In June 2012, the Lynchburg, VA area was struck by a derecho, an intense windstorm, with gusts that reached up to 80 miles per hour. The storm downed trees and power lines, leaving more than 100,000 people without power for over a week in 100-degree weather. Churches and other faith-based organizations quickly responded to the crisis, providing food, water, ice and shelter until power was restored. As a result, the health department recognized an opportunity for partnership, and two years later, when hype over the Ebola virus arrived in America, they seized upon it.

Planning for large-scale public health emergencies often poses a challenge for health departments facing limited resources. Moreover, community organizations are frequently unaware of department responsibilities as well as the programs and services it offers. CVHD was able to raise its profile within the community by reaching out to faith-based organizations during a perceived national health crisis, a moment when all eyes were on public health. By seizing upon the concern over a possible U.S. Ebola epidemic, CVHD used media coverage and public worry to its advantage—and ultimately, to the community’s as well. Through word of mouth, personal phone calls and correspondence as well as distribution of a variety of flyers and advertisements, the health department recruited faith-based organizations to attend an educational meeting on the department’s Ebola response. While there, health officials engaged attendees in conversation on the reasons partnership would be beneficial to the various organizations and community as a whole. By the meeting’s end, CVHD had established formal partnerships with thirteen different churches—one-hundred percent of the meeting attendees.

Those partnerships put in place a community safety net: they created a network of volunteers willing to provide help during public health crises, whether that means providing assistance to individuals isolated due to infectious diseases like Ebola and tuberculosis, or providing support for those affected by severe weather events, such as scorching heat or another derecho. In the case of isolated individuals, church volunteers would be willing to assist by providing food and supplies, walking pets, delivering medicine, and running any other necessary errands. CVHD helped ease volunteers’ concern over contracting a contagious disease by devising plans for epidemiological education and “just in time” training—training only conducted if the need arises.

CVHD has yet to call upon its volunteer network—the district luckily faced no suspected Ebola cases—but as health crises are hard to predict, the partnerships are in place and the volunteers are at the ready. Thus far, program development overall has been smooth, although there have been some technical issues along the way, especially in regard to privacy. Were the health department to place anyone in isolation, due to confidentiality, it would be unable to release those names to the volunteers; instead, plans were made to share the names of volunteer organizations with the individuals in isolation, asking them to release their own personal information. CVHD has also found it challenging to keep its volunteers engaged during times of relative calm. The department is careful not to bombard partners with information that is no longer relevant, especially now that the hype around Ebola—the driving force in partnership development—has waned, but is also wary of having too little contact with partner organizations and not nurturing a new relationship enough. It is a balancing act that CVHD is still sorting out, and expects to perfect as time moves forward.

What has made CVHD’s endeavor most successful, though, is its intimate knowledge of the community. Since the Lynchburg area has a large church presence and faith is an important part of most residents’ lives, churches and other faith-based organizations were a natural fit for the health department. That may not be the case for all communities. CVHD found the most important piece to consider when seeking fruitful partnerships—especially ones intended to be leveraged in times of crisis—is to really know your community, and understand which organizations serve as a driving force. Such partnerships are able to not only provide resources and support, but to actually put a face on public health and help residents recognize its importance in their community.

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