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Communicating in a Pandemic

March 19, 2009

2812720236_39fa41a787 After reading my recent post on pandemic communications considerations, some of my more astute crisis communications folks surely thought to themselves something along the lines of, “Wow, what a gross over-simplification.” And they’d have been right, too, because who am I to say that health communicators speak with one voice? I can assure that they most certainly don’t, and in a pandemic situation, who says something might be as important that what they say.

Now, we’ve all learned in our public health policy and emergency management classes that response takes place at the local level, public health takes place at local level. A pandemic’s burden will be felt primarily at the local level. So, obviously, the public will turn to local health departments for the latest and greatest information on the pandemic, right?

My response? Nope.

(Quick aside: I’m gonna catch hell for this post; starting right now)

My reasoning is this: local health departments do, in general, a pretty terrible job acting as health experts in the community. (Wow, look at all the folks unsubscribing from my feed.) Now, hear me out, cause I think I know something about this. Local health provides great information to the community, and really, for what’s paid for building and disseminating that information it’s downright saintly. For working with under-served communities within the larger community and providing targeted tools for healthy living, I think locals do that better than anyone else. But that’s not what I’m talking about, and that’s why this is important to pandemic planning.

I’m talking about being seen as the health expert in the community. When someone in your community has a question about an illness, or how sick they are, or what to do in a bioterrorist attack or in a pandemic, and goes to look for that information–do they turn to the health department? Do they call the hotline? Do they google the city’s website?

Of course not. They go to the (admittedly) awesome CDC website, or WebMD, or some random forum that tells Internet hypochondriacs they have ebola.

Normally, this doesn’t matter.  A service is provided–by someone–and the public gets what it needs. But in a pandemic, when we’re all practicing our CERC:Pandemic Edition maxims? Would you count on WebMD to tell people in your community how to isolate themselves and why their kids can’t go to school anymore?

Well, you say, we’ve got flyers for that. We’ve got templates and handouts and brochures ready to go. When the pandemic hits, we’ll be a font of information.

I don’t think so. See, when people look for pandemic information today, they find websites hocking pandemic preparedness kits, and (the admittedly cool) fluwikie, and crackpot theories about pandemic flu being a government conspiracy. Because states and locals aren’t seen as experts in the community.

I think that folks shouldn’t have to google pandemic information, it shouldn’t even occur to them to go anywhere besides the state’s health department. That it does occur to them, and they act on it, and get their information elsewhere–means we’re not providing that information to them; we’re not experts in their eyes. We haven’t built that trust up. The public doesn’t think they can depend on us–because well, right now, they can’t.

So, okay, folks will go to the CDC then. You said they have a great site, right? Yeah, but remember, this is a local response. The  state health department will know where they’re giving away vaccines and antiviral medications. They’ll know what the prevalence in your community is. The CDC might have this information, but they’ll be a bit too busy to provide it for all 5,000 communities in the country, I imagine.

Thus, it falls back to the states, and the local, health departments to build that level of trust. To be seen as experts by the community. Before the next pandemic comes along. Before we’re left out of the equation altogether. Take some of that great marketing and communications and outreach and become the go-to health folks in your area.

Photo credit: pocketdora

4 Comments leave one →
  1. aurora permalink
    March 20, 2009 4:12 pm

    When you say “The state health department will know where they’re giving away vaccines and antiviral medications” do you mean giving away to the general public?

    As in PODs?

    • March 20, 2009 5:09 pm

      That’s something that I imagine is being worked out right now. The guidance document that came out in December talked about a huge cache of antiviral medications to be used for treatment of pandemic influenza cases. They’ve got to be either distributed to the healthcare community, or given out as in PODs. Either way, the state will know where these meds end up and can direct people thusly.

      I don’t have any information on actually /how/ that will happen, but I’m really looking forward to some sort of a distribution strategy.

      Thanks for the comments, aurora!


      • March 23, 2009 12:09 pm

        As for the meds – they will be going to states from HHS/SNS and then distilled down based on state planning (I’ve been working closely with HHS people on pandemic stuff lately and have had that pounded into my head).

        The other thing I wanted to comment on is the idea that local public health isn’t seen as the authoritative source. As much as it disappoints me to say it, I agree 100%. Local public health is seen as the people who do flu shots and provide care for poor people, and the CDC is the authoritative source. Hopefully more health departments will continue working on outreach programs and tools to make themselves known to the community they serve, but at least from what I saw working in one and with others that’s not the highest priority right now.


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