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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

CDC Public Webcast Shows Americans Are Curious Why More Isn’t Always More In Dealing With H1N1 — And Government Officials Should Address Reasons For Not Doing Everything Now

April 30th, 2009 · No Comments

Earlier this afternoon, there was a special Centers For Disease Control/Health and Human Services Department webcast for the public on the H1N1 outbreak featuring CDC Acting Director Richard Besser, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (in her first 24 hours on the job) and DHS Secretary Napolitano. It was an interesting event because most of the hour-long broadcast featured email questions from the general public, many about their own personal situations, which were different than the typical H1N1 press conference q-and-a’s of the past few days. The video can be found on the HHS website or below.


Video Of CDC/HHS H1N1 Webcast

If I was to characterize the theme of much of the questioning from the audience it would be ‘if we’re in for a dime, why shouldn’t we be in for a dollar’? That is, many of the questioners wanted to know why the government isn’t taking and recommending more active precautionary measures. For example, some of the questions included: *why aren’t we closing borders with Mexico? *why aren’t we closing schools? *should people be avoiding planes and trains as well as mass transit? *should I cancel an upcoming family reunion? *should I be wearing a mask when I travel? 

The officials answered ‘no’ to each of these questions. But I think this graduated approach probably needs to be better explained, because a good deal of the public doesn’t necessarily see the downside of such more significant actions like closing schools prophylactically. Is the reason economic, diplomatic, logistic or psychological? Or is it something else? I would recommend officials address the issue since this webcast indicates it’s on the public’s mind. Talking about why more is not necessarily more will be even more important if local authorities in areas not yet effected by H1N1 continue to close schools and take other actions even though it is not “the recommended protocol” as Secretary indicated in today’s webcast. Vice President Biden’s comment this morning that he was suggesting that his family members not fly or go on mass transit also plays into the idea of why not be safe than sorry. 

There was one question along those lines in which the answer was ‘yes; — should I be stockpiling food and water?. Secretary Sebelius initially said no but probably was thinking that she might cause a run on supermarkets. Dr. Besser then injected that Americans should be “thinking about preparedness” which includes extra food and water as well as an emergency communications plan. He also recommended that Americans “stay informed” and figure out where they can get local information about the developing situation.

As far as the webcast, I think this direct to the public method of communications is very useful. Dr. Besser’s approach in particular — knowledgeable, serious yet willing to be humorous (he told the woman asking about the reunion that they shouldn’t be doing it in Mexico) — was quite effective. They probably answered about 20 of the 1500 questions sent in. Among the 1480 not answered was one I emailed in: “In a pandemic, there will be a lot of information being transmitted through the web from citizens via social media applications. Do you think that the federal, state and local governments throughout the nation have the social media capacity to keep on top of that to ensure timely and correct information is being transmitted to the public?” They didn’t get to it in the webcast. Hopefully we won’t get to that point as a country.

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Tags: Pandemic Flu

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