The deaths last month of five Washington men from AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) are tragic evidence of the task facing the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a private facility serving the local gay community, which has launched a program of support for persons with the deadly disease.

"We have to be prepared for a dramatic change in situation," said Jim Graham, a Washington lawyer who is president of the decade-old clinic at 2335 18th St. NW. "Next year we could, or we couldn't, have three times the cases, but we have to be prepared."

As part of its preparation, the clinic last week hired John Hannay, 28, to organize the more than 100 volunteers who have asked to help in AIDS education and patient support. Hannay is an activist who helped found the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless and worked for the church-funded organization Bread for the World.

Hannay, whose $17,000 salary will be provided primarily by private donations to the clinic's AIDS fund, is helping plan a special forum for homosexual members of minority groups, scheduled for Sept. 28, as well as a national AIDS forum and vigil for Oct. 8, both in Washington. One goal of the vigil, which will include a march to the White House, is to express the need for more research on AIDS.

He also will continue the clinic's efforts in providing emotional, legal and financial support for persons with AIDS, including around-the-clock companions if needed. The clinic has established a fund, named in honor of a Washingtonian who died last month, the Jim McElwain Memorial Assistance Fund, to help patients with medical expenses.

"The gay community is serving a family function" for victims, said Graham. "In a small town in the Midwest, if someone became terminally ill, the family would gather around. Many of the gay men in Washington may be estranged from their family, or at a great distance from them."

"This is not only a public health crisis, but a terminal illness. We have to deal with people who are dying," Graham added.

In recent weeks, the clinic set up a support group for partners of people with AIDS. Graham said he is interested in organizing a similar group for AIDS sufferers themselves, but few will allow themselves to be identified so publicly, he said.

"They won't come forward," he said. "As of last Friday, there were 46 cases diagnosed in the metro area. Everyone agrees that it's higher, but there's a reluctance to report."

Many of the local men, and one woman, who have been diagnosed as having AIDS, are receiving treatment at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Although the Whitman-Walker Clinic does not intend to treat AIDS patients, there are plans to open an evaluation service there, chiefly to calm the fears of people who interpret any changes in their bodies as symptoms of AIDS, Hannay said.

"We need to reassure people," said Hannay, who noted that the clinic's evening hot line logs as many as a dozen calls each evening from persons frightened that they have the disease. "Almost always, it's other health problems."

The clinic's work on AIDS education has been financed by a series of fund-raising activities held in Washington throughout the spring and summer this year. Graham said nearly $35,000 has been collected, most of it in $1 to $2 contributions. The District government, which has allocated $25,000 for AIDS-related programs, has promised $13,000 of that amount to the clinic, according to Graham.

"We're very pleased with the initiatives by Mayor Barry," he said. "He is a good friend of the gay community and we're a good friend of his."