On January 20, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the first laboratory-confirmed case of a 2019 novel coronavirus in the U.S. in Washington state. Within 10 days, and with cases already spreading internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a “public health emergency of international concern,” the highest alert level the organization can issue. The disease, which would later be officially named COVID-19, shook society to its core and left a hobbled healthcare system in its wake.
This week, after more than 39 months, the WHO declared COVID-19 over as a global health emergency, while cautioning the end of the designation does not mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat. Closer to home, the CDC followed suit, saying that as a nation we are at a different point in the pandemic with “more tools and resources than ever before to better protect ourselves and our communities.” Applying those same principles to crisis planning, healthcare communications and public information may be just what the doctor ordered.
Socially, “returning to normal” became a popular post-pandemic expression for those missing large family gatherings, a night out at the movies, or the ability to travel freely. But professionally, as hospital administrators and communicators, “normal” may no longer be an option. Even if you had a crisis plan in place in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, it likely wasn’t the crisis you expected, or the plan you needed.
Healthcare crises come in all shapes and sizes. Applying what we learned during COVID-19, and preparing now, will help you react and respond with surgical precision and emergency-room urgency.
- Build an early-warning system: “What if” planning likely couldn’t have predicted the pandemic, but it can help assess potential outcomes based on what might happen for crises on a smaller scale.
- Identify high-risk areas and find new ones: Pessimism isn’t often embraced in the workplace, but it can be effective in identifying the worst-case scenario. Afterall, the best way to manage a crisis is by preventing it.
- Assemble critical resources: Your crisis response is often judged by how quickly you respond to your stakeholders. Squeeze wasted time out of that response with materials you can create in advance. You will need call lists, notifications, fact sheets, infographics and references are all materials you will need when time is tight.
- Never forget your friends: Communication is a two-way conversation. A trusted and well-informed stakeholder can help carry your message. During a crisis you will want all stakeholders singing the same tune, but it is up to you to build the choir.
The downgraded emergency designation comes at a time when public health leaders are weighing whether COVID-19 is transitioning from a pandemic stage to an endemic stage. Endemic means a disease has a constant presence in a community, but more contained and not spreading out of control like during a pandemic. With preparation and prevention, endemic diseases are more easily prevented and treated. Just like a crisis.
Gary Holmes is a vice president with the Mower Public Relations & Public Affairs Group, which provides issue management, media training and crisis simulation services for clients. Gary previously served as assistant commissioner for public affairs at the New York State Department of Health.