Tuesday, June 2, 2015

It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over

Shortly after I arrived to assist with the botulism incident, the hospital incident commander held a morning briefing and began discussing gradual EOC de-escalation measures. Decisions were needed about which positions should continue to be maintained around the clock. (Is it shooting yourself in the foot to admit your specialty area isn’t “essential”?)

It was decided to begin the logistics of transferring the EOC-manned hotline to a hospital 24/7 answering point. A staff member was assigned to provide FAQ sheets for the operators.

A debriefing meeting was scheduled for Friday. The EOC staff had been posting flip-chart pages on all the walls of the room; I suggested someone be assigned to photograph each page, for historical archiving purposes and to become the basis for the after-action report. It seemed this would be easier for the typist than having to wade through a mountain of oversized sheets of paper.

Things seemed to be resolving nicely
With thoughts of the incident wrapping up sooner rather than later, this was looking to be an easy crisis communications day.

Following the briefing, the lead PIO decided our main goals for the day would be to get the coroner to proactively release the name of the deceased individual (as discussed last Thursday); to arrange for the hospital chaplain to do an interview; and to monitor and forward to the media the patient status numbers.

The chaplain angle got a bite from one of the local TV affiliates, so arrangements were made for him to be interviewed at the hospital for a later broadcast.

The media wanted to know how many patients had been transferred to larger hospitals in the metropolitan area. It was decided to have the state health department be the consistent clearinghouse for demographics. Journalists seem to have an infatuation with numbers, and it is very easy to end up with inconsistency between what is released and what is reported.

Things were looking good; all the planned items were either underway or complete. Easy peasy, right?

D'oh! A Changeup!
Nope. Expecting the fast ball down the middle, and the pitcher threw a change-up.

Word got out to the media that two representatives from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would be arriving. The big boys. The varsity. Reporters began calling with questions about when they would arrive, where they would go, and what would their tasks would be.

The guys from the big leagues
We did not have a handle on the specifics regarding their arrival. I had an ace up my sleeve in that I had a colleague working in Atlanta (CDC-HQ) who had been a member of our regional PIO network. I got him on the line and he said he would do some digging.

Sometime later he emailed me that two “EIS” officers (epidemic intelligence service) were on their way to assist with the investigation and would link-up with the state CDC EIS officer. (Who knew we even had such a thing?) Once again, maintaining professional contacts paid off. 

Half of this game is 90 percent mental
Thinking we were once again ahead in the count (apologies for the baseball analogies, but Yogi Berra did coin the title phrase), that guy on the mound pulled a knuckler from his bag of tricks. The media latched onto the fact that there was (is) a built-in delay when a local health entity requests support from the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). For those unaware, this is a system of pre-stocking medicines and medical supplies in case of regional or national emergency. Sensing a conflict, impact, or consequence (hey, didn’t Iovino just write about this stuff?), the media focused on the timeline for delivery of the botulism-specific meds from the SNS to the hospital. Because botulinum toxin is a potential terrorism weapon, the antitoxins are maintained nationally instead of locally. The common reporting angle was that the system is too bureaucratic and patients may have suffered from the delay.

The media kept trying to maneuver spokespersons from different organizations involved in the incident to speak publicly (“give an opinion”) about this system. We had to remind ourselves that this was neither the time nor place for any public infighting, and could be addressed at a later forum. It was felt that making an issue of it at this time would simply drive a wedge between all the entities trying to deal with the crisis.

So much for a short, simple day. And there was more to come.

Dan Kochensparger
Public Information Officer
Upper Arlington, Ohio Fire Department

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