Wash your Hands. The Rest is Commentary.

File this under things I didn’t learn in rabbinical school: how to handle a public health crisis at your synagogue.

This past Thursday in the late afternoon I got a call from the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department, letting me know that they were conducting an investigation into a norovirus outbreak at the synagogue. We often rent our facility to outside groups, especially during the legislative session for lobby days, and this past Sunday a group of about 150 were meeting in our space. At some point during their gathering, as food was prepared and shared, the infection spread.

While a significant number of people at the meeting got sick, and although others who came through TBH later that week including myself have not gotten ill, what it does mean for us afterwards is that our synagogue building was contaminated. Any place that a carrier touched is a potential hot spot for the highly contagious virus, which can live on for months before getting picked up and activated. In order to rid ourselves of the risk, we would need to do a comprehensive cleaning of our building with a bleach solution, following guidelines given to us by the health department. Any surface that is exposed and potentially touched needed to be cleaned. Anything that is exposed and can not be cleaned would need to be discarded. Dishes would need to be washed and sanitized, and linens would need to be laundered.

After meeting with the health department, it became clear that this was a job too big for a team of volunteers, or even our regular cleaners. So we brought in a cleaning company that specializes in this type of work and has experience in medical facilities, surgical centers, etc. We closed down the building for the weekend, cancelling all of our services and programs, in order to give time for the cleaners to do their work without risking spreading the virus.

Whew.

While the work has not yet been completed as I write this, I am feeling better now that there is a plan in place following the initial stress about the overwhelming nature of the news. But this is generally how it goes: we are overwhelmed and flooded at first, and then, with the support of others, we can figure out a plan and outcome.

There is a particular irony perhaps in that this happened the week we are reading the Torah portion Va’era in the book of Exodus, which begins the story of the plagues in Egypt. The Israelites have been enslaved to Pharaoh and, after crying out to God, Moses is sent to liberate them. God promises Moses that ten plagues will be visited upon Egypt in order to help convince Pharaoh and to garner support from among the Israelites.

The plagues may be familiar to us as we tell and retell the story, especially at Passover when during the Seder we traditionally spill a drop of wine for each of the plagues. In this week’s reading we read about the first seven: blood, frogs, lice, flies, cattle disease, boils and hail.

Its interesting to see how the first couple of plagues seem to follow a pattern of disease transmission as we might understand it today. First contaminated water leads to frogs coming up on land and eventually dying. The frog corpses attract flies and insects. The insects infect the cattle, and that infection in turn is transmitted to people. It’s possible to see the plagues, rather than separate incidents, as part of a larger whole.

And as we know now, an original contamination this can quickly and easily spread. Indeed, as I learned from the public health officials who visited the synagogue this week, norovirus is a fecal-to-oral transmission. In other words, it begins usually with an environmental contamination relating to human waste, then spreads via touch to others. We can prevent or limit transmission by making sure that the original contamination doesn’t happen in the first place.

A point of note in the text is the fact that Pharaoh’s “heart was hardened”–it says this a number of times in the Torah. In other words, Pharaoh was stubborn, and he was unwilling to give in and free the Israelites despite the power of the plagues. Because of this the plagues got progressively worse and worse for the Egyptians. If Pharaoh was able to recognize the reality in the beginning, he could have staved off a more destructive ending.

As with Pharaoh, so too with us. We too can recognize that a simple act early on can limit or prevent worse outcomes. An act of prevention or precaution or preparation can go a long way to easing our way forward and avoiding complications.

What this simple act may be may take many forms depending on the circumstances, but one concrete habit was reinforced for me this week: remember to always wash your hands.

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