ON THE RECORD/Flu summits target local, state leaders
With increasing reports of influenza worldwide and fears of an outbreak running high across the nation, President Bush has urged federal officials to help state and local governments plan for a pandemic. To accomplish the task, the Washington-based Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in conjunction with other federal agencies, is holding a series of state pandemic planning summits designed to help local governments prepare for a possible outbreak. American City & County talked with Dr. John Agwunobi, HHS assistant secretary for health, about the goals of the summits, pandemic planning and the importance of local and state leadership during an outbreak.
Q: What can attendees expect from the summits?
A: The summits are an opportunity for governors to convene representatives from across their communities — not just state officials and local officials but people outside of the usual planning and preparedness circles. People like the pastor from the local community church and school superintendents or the school principal. It’s an opportunity for the governor, with the secretary [of HHS] by his or her side, to reach out [and] bring the broader community into a room. We’re not telling them things. We’re answering their questions.
Q: Are there any misconceptions or myths that communities have about pandemics?
A: Some of the obvious areas relate to the role of the federal government. There’s a growing perception among some people that the federal government will be every answer to everyone in a pandemic. Sometimes they don’t realize that in a pandemic, everyone is affected simultaneously, and the only way to assure that a community can get through a pandemic is to assure that everyone has a plan.
The other thing is that some states and local governments sometimes forget that if you haven’t exercised a plan, you can’t be sure it’s going to work. Sometimes we find that people tend to focus on the things that they’ve done, the strengths of their plan, and what we’re urging people [to do] is to have an open dialogue about the weaknesses in the plan.
Q: Is there anything governments and communities should not do during the planning process?
A: They should never underestimate the ability of their community to stand up to the face of a challenge. All too often, local governments, state governments and, to some degree, the federal government, sometimes think that we know best and we’re going to keep some information from citizens. We believe it is absolutely critical that mechanisms and plans be put in place that allow for the free exchange of information and for the honest delivery of all the facts so that citizens can plan accordingly. Pandemic influenza is going to be a global crisis, but it’s going to be a local response, and we’re hoping we can build a grassroots approach because that’ll be the way we are forced to respond.
Q: What are the main items governments should plan for?
A: Risk communication. The understanding of how to communicate with your citizens is absolutely critical. There needs to be someone in leadership who is appointed and who understands what their role is going to be in making sure that their citizens understand what’s happening and what the plans are to get through that crisis. Having a plan is critically important, and every community should have a plan. No two plans will be identical. No two communities are the same. That’s one of the main reasons we’re reaching out to states and to local communities through these state summits. ACC Q: What is HHS’ ultimate goal for the pandemic summits?