CC BY-ND“width =” 800 “height =” 315 “/> Participant in a tabletop exercise in Texas contemplating an outbreak of Ebola virus disease. Photo credit: USA Center for Rural Health Preparedness, CC BY-ND
While the world is still affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, public health and emergency management experts are already preparing for the next. After all, biologists are certain that sooner or later another dangerous new pathogen will appear.
We are public health researchers engaged in both leading public health disaster relief and emergency management assessment.
Here are five strategies that can give the world a head start – and maybe even help prevent the next outbreak or epidemic from turning into a pandemic.
1. Support the systems you already have
The identification of a new Ebola outbreak in Guinea in February 2021 demonstrated the importance of monitoring and reporting in order to respond quickly to and contain infectious diseases.
The process generally works like this: once a smart health care professional diagnoses a disease that is on the watch list of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she reports the case to local health authorities for investigation. The information is passed on to the state, federal and international levels via the chain.
Clinicians, doctors, and laboratories around the world send disease reports to groups such as the WHO Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network. It gathers all of this data and helps identify new infectious disease outbreaks and their pandemic potential.
When a pathogen passes local monitors and begins to spread, governments have emergency management systems in place to respond. These incident command structures provide a framework for responding to crises ranging from infectious diseases to natural disasters to terrorist attacks.
In the United States, different federal agencies have different responsibilities. They monitor emerging infectious diseases, build up a strategic national reserve of resources, and support states in their preparedness and response. Responsibility for the emergency response rests with each state – it says in the US constitution – so they are flexible in how they do everything locally.
A practical way to be prepared for a future pandemic is to make sure that all of these systems and structures remain stable. This means funding, training, and human resources for a quick global response are retained even when there are no pandemic threats on the horizon.
2. Prepare the public to do their part
An effective pandemic response requires a clear, consistent voice and actionable message that reflects best practices based on sound scientific evidence. News and data that clearly explains how each individual plays an important role in containing the pandemic – and that it can evolve over time as the pandemic progresses – is vital.
The message to stay home and “flatten the curve” to avoid overloading health care resources with COVID-19 cases was an essential early public health message that resonated with many Americans who have not been identified as essential employees. However, once the first shutdown orders were lifted and new treatments emerged, there was general confusion about the safety of public gatherings, especially as guidelines varied by state or location.
Guidance is also most effective when tailored to different audiences. In the south, government and healthcare providers’ distrust of tests and vaccinations is directly related to language barriers and immigration problems. One strategy to reach diverse and often underserved populations is to rely on leaders in the local faith community to help convey public health messages.
Preparedness requires an “all-of-community” approach that involves everyone in the planning phase, especially those from underserved or vulnerable populations. Relationship-building can now improve access to information and resources when the next disaster strikes, helping to ensure equity and flexibility in response.
Science and risk communication scientists have started talking about how best to cope with the information overload during a pandemic. Lessons from the so-called infodemia of the COVID-19 news – some trustworthy, some certainly not – can reveal new strategies for sharing reliable information and building trust in science.
3. Coordinate and practice
Emergency managers and healthcare leaders have long recognized that a coordinated response from diverse teams to public health emergencies is critical.
Table exercises that simulate real emergencies help officers prepare for crises of all kinds. Like a fire drill, they bring community stakeholders together to go through a hypothetical disaster scenario and define roles and responsibilities. These practice sessions include people working in the public health, emergency management, and health care sectors, as well as federal, tribal, state, and local front lines.
In the exercise scenarios, the reality of “stacked disasters” such as a hurricane or winter storm, which puts even more strain on the disaster control system, must also be taken into account.
These exercises enable a community to test portions of the overall business continuity management plan and identify gaps or areas that need strengthening. Ongoing testing and training on the plan ensures everyone is as ready as they can.
In addition to this training, health professionals could be trained to provide support for specialized clinical staff who may need assistance during a long pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided lessons about infrastructure and supply chains. Strategic investments can sustain existing strategic national supplies and vaccinations for the future. If necessary, the president can use the Defense Production Act to order private companies to prioritize federal contracts.
4. Polish the game book
After every major disaster response, all groups involved – law enforcement, ambulance, fire brigade, emergency management, public health, search and rescue, etc. – conduct so-called “after-action reviews”. You can improve plans for the next time.
For example, in the aftermath of the 2009 pandemic influenza, the Department of Health and Human Services found that while the CDC’s communications efforts were largely successful, some non-English speaking populations missed important news. The post-action review found that suspicion of the government increased when vaccine supplies did not meet public expectations. In return, officials could schedule exercises to test and optimize approaches for the next time.
A thorough review of the response to the current COVID-19 pandemic at all levels will reveal gaps, challenges and achievements. These “after-action” results need to be incorporated into future planning to improve preparedness and response to the next pandemic.
5. Build on the new normal
When the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic spread, few Americans had phones. The quarantine rules resulted in more households using phones and sped up research that reduced reliance on human operator. Similarly, COVID-19 undoubtedly sparked some rapid changes that will continue and will help the US be prepared for future events.
Because of this pandemic, thanks to the way technology has transformed the workplace, the classroom, and the delivery of health care services, it has been easier to adapt to the lifestyle changes needed. Business analysts predict that the rapid transition to video conferencing and remote working for offices in 2020 will be a lasting legacy of COVID-19. A multidisciplinary team here at Texas A&M is tracking how robotics and automated systems are used in responding to pandemics in clinical care, public health and public safety.
Some of the sudden, dramatic changes in norms and behavior, such as the use of face masks in public, are perhaps some of the simplest strategies to ward off a future respiratory virus pandemic. Just as phone systems have continued to improve over the past 100 years, ongoing innovations built on the rapid adoption of technologies related to COVID-19 will help people adapt to sudden lifestyle changes during the next pandemic.
The study identifies strengths and challenges in responding to dual disasters provided by The Conversation
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