By Mary Beth Schweigert
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a relentless flood of information, which often seems to evolve minute by minute. Imagine navigating this historic public health crisis without the benefit of online news reports, social media or even a television.
Lack of information – —and the rampant spread of misinformation — is just one challenge confronting the 39,000 members of Lancaster County’s Amish community during the pandemic. Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health is working to ensure that accurate, culturally sensitive health information reaches the local Amish community in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.
LG Health has a long history of partnering with the Amish community on farm safety, vaccinations and other health initiatives. Michael Reihart, DO, an emergency physician at Lancaster General Hospital, said the open lines of communication and mutual trust forged through those efforts proved invaluable to the success of LG Health’s COVID-19 outreach to the Amish.
“By working together over the past 10 years, LG Health gained the trust of the Amish community,” said Reihart, who has been closely involved in those efforts, which include personal visits to Amish farms and 24-7 availability for questions. “We’ve also gained a deeper understanding and respect for Amish beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, which helps us to make our education efforts more effective.”
In addition to limited information, the Amish community has some unique concerns about seeking medical care. Generally known as family-oriented and stoic, the Amish — who tend to favor more natural treatments and pay their own medical bills — prefer to care for their own whenever possible.
The pandemic exacerbated existing impediments to seeking medical care, such as arranging transportation, and brought about some added challenges, including the logistics of quarantining at home with a large family and visitation restrictions initially in place at most medical facilities.
For these reasons, LG Health focused its COVID-19 outreach efforts on the areas with the greatest potential impact: preventing the spread of the virus and encouraging the Amish to seek care in the event of an infection. To reach the Amish community, LG Health relied on communication methods that may be considered old-fashioned by today’s standards, including newspaper ads, printed educational materials and in-person meetings.
Few official statistics are available on COVID-19’s prevalence in the Amish community. However, one Amish man, who asked that his name not be used out of respect for his traditions, said the pandemic has profoundly impacted his friends and neighbors.
“I’ve lost count of how many people it’s affected in our community,” he said. “I lost one of my very good friends.”
The man is an Amish community leader who has worked with LG Health to address a number of safety issues in recent years, such as designing hay-hole covers to prevent falls and installing back-up cameras on farm machinery to improve visibility.
In general, the Amish man said, his community tends to be somewhat suspicious of the medical field, which extends to some data publicized about COVID-19. The established partnership with the LG Health team helps to diminish some of the overall skepticism, he said, and proved particularly valuable at dispelling rumors that swirled as the pandemic progressed.
For many years, Rosemary Search, RN, BSN, a health promotion specialist at LG Health, has met with groups of Amish women in their homes, sharing information on health topics including heart disease, stroke and menopause, and providing health screenings, such as cholesterol, glucose and BMI. She relied on those long-standing connections to disseminate accurate information during the pandemic.
“Many of our Amish contacts reached out directly to me with questions or seeking more information about COVID-19,” she said. “Because of the relationships we built, they understood that we wanted to keep them as safe as possible.”
Through years of partnership with the Amish, LG Health has learned how to effectively approach health-related topics with the community. Search and her colleagues understand, for example, that being a good neighbor is central to the Amish way of life.
During the pandemic, LG Health placed fact sheets in the “Busy Beaver,” a weekly print publication that reaches thousands of Amish homes. Each fact sheet, which covered hand-washing, mask-wearing, symptoms and caring for someone with COVID-19, included the tagline: “Help keep you and your neighbor healthy. Together, we’ll get through this.”
“From working with the Amish, we know that the Busy Beaver is one of the best ways to reach them with information,” Search said. “They all read it from front to back.”
LG Health also relied on key contacts within the community, including church bishops and Amish EMTs and firefighters, to serve as additional trusted conduits for educational materials and rumor control.
In March, just as the pandemic hit locally, Reihart and others met with organizers of the Gordonville Mud Sale, a major community fundraiser that draws up to 1,000 people. While the event went on as planned, organizers agreed to allow LG Health to provide crowd announcements and written educational materials about hand-washing and other risk-mitigation strategies.
Like their non-Amish neighbors, the Amish initially restricted large gatherings during the pandemic. However, the community planned to resume church services in time for Easter. The Amish especially love to sing, Reihart said, which brings a heightened danger of transmitting COVID-19. He and other LG Health representatives met with Amish bishops to discuss the dangers of holding large gatherings.
“After hearing our recommendation, they reversed their initial decision,” Reihart said. “They decided not to have church services for Easter, which is unheard of in the Amish community.”
Much like the non-Amish, he said, there is growing weariness in the Amish community with the pandemic and its associated restrictions, and a widespread desire for life to return to “normal.” Church services and other large gatherings have since resumed.
Even so, the Amish continue to live out their beliefs by contributing to local COVID-19 relief efforts. At sewing parties held across the county and the state, they’ve made thousands of face masks for health-care providers, first responders and their neighbors, Amish and non-Amish alike.