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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Walking (& Communicating) The Fine Line With The Public On H1N1

August 10th, 2009 · No Comments

In today’s Washington Post, there’s a good front page piece, “Northern Hemisphere Braces As Swine Flu Heads North”, which looks at the government’s efforts to plan and prepare for the possible return of the H1N1 flu in the Fall. In fact, H1n1 is on the agenda for President Obama’s meetings with the leaders of Canada and Mexico. According to the article:

“Everyone recognizes that H1N1 is going to be a challenge for all of us, and there are people who are going to be getting sick in the fall and die,” said John O. Brennan, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security. “The strategy and the effort on the part of the governments is to make sure we . . . collaborate to minimize the impact.”

Concern about a second wave has prompted a flurry of activity by federal, state and local officials, including intensifying flu virus monitoring and making plans to distribute vaccine and antiviral drugs and other treatments if necessary. ”There’s a lot of moving parts to this,” said Joseph S. Bresee, who heads the CDC’s influenza epidemiology and prevention branch. “Hopefully we won’t have a panic, but instead we’ll have the appropriate level of concern and response.”

On Friday, the federal government issued revised guidelines for local schools in dealing with H1N1. Many officials felt that widespread school closures during the Spring were not effective in stopping the flu and had a negative collateral impact. As a result, officials are now recommending that schools only close when there is a major outbreak and reduce the amount of time sick students should stay home when their fever breaks. The article notes the challenging balance officials are trying to find when it comes to communicating with the public on these issues:

The Obama administration has been updating recommendations for when to close schools, what parents should do if their children get sick, how doctors should care for patients and how businesses should respond to large-scale absences. Officials are hoping to navigate a fine line, urging precautions to minimize spread, serious illness and deaths while avoiding undue alarm and misinformation.

“The last time we had anything similar to this was prior to the Internet,” said one senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity last week during one of a series of background briefings for reporters.

First of all, I’m not sure it makes sense for “senior officials” to get themselves quoted only as “senior officials” during briefings for reporters on this topic. I think it lends a secretive tone that isn’t really called for here. Why couldn’t that statement be attached to a name? Further, though its possible the quotation is not in full context, the official probably should have noted that the Internet also can and would also play a positive role in a pandemic helping distribute information between all stakeholders, including the public.

But apart from the attribution language, I wanted to make a couple of brief points from the weekend:

* On Schools — I think it is good that officials have publicly issued the new guidelines. At the H1N1 Summit, I heard many experts dispute the widely-held view (among the public and the press) that the school closings had been effective in stopping the flu during the Spring. Correcting that history and publicly explaining the reasons for a ‘less agressive’ policy is smart.

However, in the Fall, if individual local school systems are ‘more aggressive’ in closing their buildings, it will be difficult — in this media age — for other places to resist pressure that will undoubtedly come from parents asking why they are not being similarly aggressive. It’s tough to resist that pressure as the situation in the Spring indicated no matter what the experts say. Here I think the media — particularly the cable news channels — are very important. Obviously, they need to report the truth. However they would best serve their viewers if they explain the pro’s and con’s of school closings and the specific situations in each place rather than just transmitting and exacerbating panic. The CDC and other agencies can help by doing more briefings (anonymous or not) and also discussing some of these scenarios with the public so they understand if their school districts do stay open.

On Businesses – While there is a governance structure that can implement policy on H1N1 in schools around the U.S., the challenge is more difficult when it comes to business, particularly small and medium sized firms. A big challenge in dealing with a major outbreak is how the private sector will deal with significant absentee rates due to illness to employees and their children.

For the government, the bully pulpit is the tool they have to rely on most over the next few weeks. Officials have been repeatedly asking employers to start planning for H1N1 in the Fall. In many businesses, particularly large corporations, that type of preparation builds upon existing plans and is definitely happening. The real challenge is smaller companies. No matter what they do in the event of a virulent outbreak business will be disrupted. However, I would suggest that officials — including President Obama — begin highlighting businesses and other institutions who are models of H1N1 prep as a way to guide others who aren’t sure how or even if they can do it.

On Communities — One final thing from the weekend. I read on the very helpful Avian Flu Diary blog about another H1N1 preparedness idea — that Canada was urging their citizens to find a ‘flu buddy’. This type of one-to-one preparation and planning is something that we all should be doing with our neighbors whether it has to do with H1N1 or another emergency like a power failure or fire. If H1N1 is the catalyst for more of this then something will definitely have been gained. public.

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Tags: Pandemic Flu

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