Volume LVIIJanuary 2010Number 1

Handling Epidemics Then & Now

The Masonic Village at Elizabethtown has been providing caring services since 1910. In celebration of its centennial anniversary, the Masonic Village will release a coffee-table style history book to share how Pennsylvania Freemasons from all generations dedicated themselves to creating a premier community to care for fellow Masons, their family members and the community. The following is just one of many interesting stories uncovered while researching the community's extensive history.

The annual flu season is in full swing and has centered around the 2009 H1N1 influenza or "swine flu." The World Health Organization has deemed it a pandemic influenza infection, and President Obama has declared it a national emergency. But this isn't the first time the world has been plagued with influenza, nor is it the first time the Masonic Village has planned specific measures to stop the spread of the virus.

Since the inception of the Masonic Village in 1902, the community was intended to provide the highest degree of compassionate care possible. Inherent to this mission is enacting programs and policies that are revolutionary for their time, which is part of the reason Masonic Village has always planned ahead with procedures in place to handle outbreaks.

In 1918, the Masonic Village was an eight-year-old community with about 310 residents. The village consisted of four main residential buildings; two renovated homes for children; and the one-wing Philadelphia Freemasons' Memorial Hospital. Despite its relatively small size and young age, the Masonic Village had a lasting impact on the community and fraternity that year, as the following excerpt from the Masonic Village's history book describes:

As the war came to a close, people began catching the flu in pockets around the world. The first plague in the spring of 1918 only affected a few people, but when the disease surfaced again that fall, its effects devastated the world. Some people died within hours of contracting the disease. With soldiers trekking across battlefields and returning home, the virus spread rapidly.

Worldwide, one-fifth of the population suffered from the influenza outbreak to some extent, and one-fourth of Americans contracted it. The disease ran rampant among all age groups and regions. While about 16 million people died in World War I, the virus killed an estimated 50 million people. The average life expectancy in America dropped 12 years within 12 months.

The influenza epidemic struck the Elizabethtown area as severely as other locations. In a grand gesture of service to the community, doctors transferred the Masonic [residents] without influenza from the hospital to the Grand Lodge Hall Infirmary and opened the hospital to community members with influenza. Under the care of the Red Cross of Elizabethtown, influenza-stricken community members streamed into the hospital. "This became a splendid asylum for the sorely stricken families of the vicinity who had no place else to go," the Committee on Masonic Homes reported in 1918. Doctors only admitted influenza victims into the hospital to quarantine the sufferers and prevent the spread of the virus. During the several months the hospital took patients from the community, 82 people with no Masonic affiliation received the best treatment possible.

At the same time, guards stood post at the boulevards leading to the [Masonic Village] to quarantine the entire area. This security kept [residents] in and others out; no one could pass without written consent. At the time, many of the employees lived in housing at the Masonic [Village]. While internal church services continued, after August 24, the committee reported no more activities at the [Masonic Village]. While these precautions may have made life less interesting, they saved lives, because no [Masonic Village residents] died from the influenza epidemic.

"Masonic Village handled the 1918 epidemic well," Joyce Heisey, R.N., assistant director of nursing/infection control, said. "We use all the same practices today to control the spread of a contagious illness," Heisey said. "This kind of medical care was probably very limited in availability in 1918, so it was a great service to offer out to the community rather than people remaining at home where they received minimal, if any, medical care."

In the 21st century, Masonic Villages has additional tools such as gloves, surgical masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizers to prevent the spread of viruses, and medications to prevent infection or lessen symptoms. The development of antibiotics to treat complications of influenza has helped to increase survival rates. Masonic Villages offers free seasonal flu vaccines and recommends all residents, employees and volunteers receive the shot annually.

Education and communication have also reduced the spread of infection. "We spend quite a bit of time providing education for residents and staff about preventative measures," Heisey said. "The Internet is a huge tool to help us connect with the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health for current spread of the disease, updated recommendations and more."

Despite the best preventative measures, some degree of illness is unavoidable. "We are also becoming better and more knowledgeable about surveillance for signs and symptoms of infectious illness, and therefore, are able to put interventions in place more quickly," Heisey said. Masonic Village can now test individuals for influenza A or B and send the tests for genetic typing to more specifically identify the influenza strain, allowing healthcare providers to use the most effective antiviral medication.

When it comes to a fast-spreading infectious disease, if multiple residents on a unit suffer from the same ailment, medical professionals still resort to many of the same 1918 practices - namely, the unit is closed, which generally means visitors are asked to stay home, and residents remain on their floor. Group activities may be put on hold or conducted on smaller scales. Residents with the illness receive meals in their rooms, while the others may eat in the dining room. Units are usually reopened 48 to 72 hours after residents stop exhibiting symptoms. Providing high quality and compassionate care and services remain top priorities.

The Masonic Villages' plan for the H1N1 virus in residents remains largely the same as its procedures for other influenza viruses, with a few minor changes. "Our employees are considered high risk, so precautions are focused on that population," Heisey said. Most seniors have developed some level of immunity to the H1N1 virus, most likely because a similar strain of flu spread in the 1950s, so residents have built up a level of immunity to it.

The Masonic Villages is constantly combining its 100 years of history with new knowledge and tools to provide revolutionary care. If you would like to read interesting stories similar to this one, look for the release of the Masonic Village at Elizabethtown's history book on June 25, 2010.

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