Since its founding in 1989, the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg has cultivated relationships of trust with its Amish and Mennonite patients, their families and the broader Plain community.
It was thus positioned to serve a crucial educational role when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.
Amish and Old Order Mennonites eschew "worldliness" in favor of close-knit communities that hew to tradition. They keep a wary distance from modern mainstream culture.
"Mass media technology in particular, they fear, would introduce foreign values into their culture," Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies notes on its Amish Studies website.
Yet Amish and Mennonite do interact with people outside their communities and are at risk from coronavirus. As the pandemic spread, public health officials wanted to make sure Plain communities had the information they needed to protect their communities and prevent outbreaks.
The Clinic for Special Children specializes in the research and treatment of rare genetic diseases. From time to time, it has mass-mailed open letters to its patients. Clinic leaders figured it would make sense to disseminate reliable Covid-19 information the same way.
So between mid-March and late May, the clinic mailed out three open letters penned by medical director Dr. Kevin Strauss. Its FAQ on the coronavirus was the second, dated April 14 and funded by a Lancaster Cares grant.
Among the questions: "Am I safe from Covid-19 if I live in a rural community?" "Does 'the flu' make me immune to Covid-19?" "Is it safe to gather with people who don't seem sick?" (The answer to all three: An emphatic "No," followed by explanations.)
"Remember," the FAQ says, "precautionary measures and social distancing only work if everyone does their part; this is our time to stand together with caring people everywhere."
The letters went out to about 1,000 households, said Emily Seitz, the clinic's development director.
"It takes a significant amount of time and resources to put together a mailing of that magnitude," she said.
Kelly Cullen, the clinic's communication manager, said the information was well received. The letters were shared among relatives and neighbors and two were reprinted in The Budget, an Amish and Mennonite newspaper.
In the Amish world, the foundation of trust is longstanding relationships, the kind the clinic has built step by step over decades, said Steve Nolt, a professor of history and Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College and senior scholar at the Young Center.
"The clinic and its staff," Nolt said, "have a lot of cultural understanding and respect for the populations with whom they work. They are able to communicate to members of the Plain community in respectful and understandable ways."
Preventive measures taken
The clinic's outreach effort have been complemented by work from other health organizations and by state and local officials.
Beginning in mid-March, Amish church districts in Lancaster County suspended Sunday services for about a month and a half, Nolt said. Amish schools closed too, he said, around the same time other schools did.
When worship services resumed, some implemented modifications to mitigate Covid-19 dangers: Meeting in a barn rather than in a house, forgoing handshakes, omitting group meals after services.
On the other hand, many Amish are "moving on pretty quickly," Nolt said. There has been skepticism about the pandemic and the measures imposed to contain it.
The clinic reopened June 8, after making renovations, acquiring personal protective equipment or PPE and implementing Covid-19 safety protocols. It plans to seek a follow-up Lancaster Cares to help offset those costs, Seitz said.
It continues to urge everyone to follow CDC, state and local health guidelines, saying: "Failing to do so puts lives at risk."
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