Pandemic Communications FAQ
Answers to questions posed at the May, 2006 pandemic plan preview meetings.
Is MDH/CDC/OEP developing a general public education and preparation communication plan for all Minnesota residents?
Developing and implementing an effective strategy for educating the public about preparedness is a big task – especially during the interpandemic period, when public interest in the topic may rise and wane in response to events. Doing it right will require a major commitment of resources, and the ability to mount a sustained, coordinated effort over an extended time period. The challenge is even larger if we make it our goal to actually change human behavior – e.g., by getting people to develop and implement individual and family preparedness plans.
For that reason, we have approached the issue of public education one step at a time. The most pressing need, initially, has been communication with stakeholders and potential partners. To assist our own staff and external partners in communicating with stakeholder groups, we have been developing a “tool kit” of vehicles and materials, and posting these items on the MDH WorkSpace under “Public Communication Resources.” Items available at this location include print materials – many of which can be adapted for use by other organizations – as well as templates for PowerPoint presentations and other resources.
- MDH Workspace
Selected local public health and hospital staff have accounts on the workspace.
As you are probably aware if you are reading this Q&A, we also have an extensive array of information about avian and pandemic influenza on our public website at MDH, and we recently instituted a subscription service that provides people with e-mail notification when new material is added to the site. The state has also created a portal site that directs people to information on avian and pandemic flu on our site as well as other state agency websites.
- Avian H5N1 Influenza
Information about the current strain of bird flu, H5N1, which could become our next pandemic.
- Pandemic Influenza Planning
Pandemic planning materials for individuals, families, schools, local public health, state and federal government.
- What's New - Influenza
Subscribe to get an email when significant changes are made to the MDH avian, pandemic or seasonal influenza pages.
- State of Minnesota Bird Flu Information
Links to avian influenza and pandemic planning information at the various state agencies. Attention: Non-MDH link
Like other state and local agencies, MDH has been responding to a large number of requests for presenters on pandemic flu and related topics. A substantial number of these stakeholder presentations have already been scheduled from now through late fall. MDH and its local partners have also been disseminating pandemic information through community events (fairs, community celebrations, etc.), and we will be making pandemic preparedness a major focus of this year’s MDH exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair.
Looking a the longer term, we are also in the initial stages of planning a formal information/education campaign on pandemic influenza and individual/family preparedness, using pandemic influenza funds approved by the 2006 Minnesota Legislature. We’re still at an early point in this project, but we plan to move very quickly on it.
Will MDH make some educational materials available to media outlets during the interpandemic period? Example: what citizens can do to prepare?
Media organizations have been made aware of the materials available on our website, and have frequently promoted them in news stories, as well as linking to them from their own websites. We have also made an ongoing effort to generate media attention for pandemic influenza and emergency preparedness issues, whenever we could identify a suitable news peg or organize an effective media event. Examples include Governor Pawlenty’s news conference in November, U.S. HHS Secretary Leavitt’s pandemic summit in December, and a major multi-agency media availability in April. We will continue to aggressively explore opportunities for using the media to inform the public about pandemic flu issues. Public interest (and therefore media interest) in avian and pandemic flu appears to have waned, at least temporarily. However, we can anticipate that public concern on this topic will be cyclical in nature, so there should be additional opportunities to discuss pandemic influenza with and through the media in the future. As part of our activities at the State Fair (see response to last question), we are planning a media event that will involve a hands-on demonstration of individual and family preparedness measures by Commissioners Campion (Public Safety) and Mandernach (Health).
Over the longer term, we plan to initiate more general discussions with the Minnesota media regarding their role in responding to a pandemic, including possible mechanisms and prior arrangements for disseminating emergency messages and information.
What type of information is going to the public at this time regarding pan flu planning?
Giving the public a sense of what we’ve done to prepare for a pandemic – or some other type of health emergency – has been especially challenging. Much of the activity has focused on areas like the development of plans and systems – in a word, “process” – which makes it more difficult to convey a sense of the progress we’ve made in concrete, readily understood terms.
We have attempted to make the planning process as transparent as possible, and to make information about our pandemic flu response plan available to the public. That includes allowing the media to observe our pandemic plan “partner preview” event in May, and posting of our plan and related documents on the public portion of our website. However, we hope to take a more proactive approach to communicating with the public about emergency preparedness activities in the future. We plan to develop messages that describe the progress we have made in more concrete terms – e.g., by describing how specific actions or activities have “made us safer” – rather than focusing on process. We also plan to provide media with access to drills, exercises, and other preparedness activities, to a greater extent than we have in the past. Many local public health agencies have already allowed media to observe preparedness activities, but we hope to greatly expand this practice. We are currently planning to provide the media with partial access to an exercise tentatively scheduled for late September, involving U.S. HHS Secretary Leavitt. We hope that these activities will give the public a better sense of how their emergency preparedness dollars are being used.
What will be the primary model(s) of communication to get information out to medical clinics? HAN? Media/TV radio? How should they plan to get the most current/emergency information?
While we can all probably expect to get at least some of our information from the media during an emergency event, more direct and targeted forms of communication will be used to communicate with health care providers and other partner organizations. We plan to use multiple vehicles to share information, and the mix of vehicles used will depend on the issues being addressed and the target audience. To get a sense of how we currently envision the partner communication process, see Attachment H (Pandemic Influenza Partner Communication Matrix) and Attachment I (Emergency Response Internal & Partner Communication Guidance) of the Minnesota Department of Health Pandemic Influenza Plan.
Written communication, such as disease newsletters have been critical to the service of hospitals etc. Why did MDH decide to end this support now?
Like many organizations – both in government and in the private sector – Minnesota state agencies are moving away from the use of paper-based communications vehicles, toward greater use of the internet and other electronic tools. MDH is part of that trend. We believe that this approach to communication will free up scarce public resources, so they can be used for other purposes – without sacrificing any of our ability to communicate essential information to our external partners. Compared to electronic vehicles, printing and distribution of paper publications is a labor-intensive and resource-intensive process. At its best, electronic publication also represents a more flexible and interactive way to present information, and it’s easier to store, archive and access information in electronic format. These considerations have motivated many professional publications and academic institutions to move in the direction of electronic publication.
We are strongly committed to maintaining the flow of critical information to our partner agencies and organizations, including the health care provider community, as we make the switch to electronic publication. A case in point is our Disease Control Newsletter, which has been published for many years in paper format. After discussions with the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, in which they indicated that electronic communication is becoming the preferred way to reach their members, we are converting the DCN to an electronic publication.
- Disease Control Newsletter
Click on "Subscribe to the Disease Control Newsletter" to be notified via email whenever there is a new issue.
In a statewide health emergency will MDH be developing the public/partner messages at the SEOC and sending them to local public health and county emergency operation centers?
For partner communication, please see the previous question about medical clinics. For public messages, we will be using vehicles that have already been employed in connection with previous high-profile public health events. MDH will assume the lead role in developing health-related messages for the public. Staff in the planning section of the Department Operations Center will be responsible for developing messages (or selecting/adapting prescripted messages). To provide message coordination, standard messages/talking points will be created, posted on the MDH WorkSpace (in the Public Communication Resources section), and shared with local public health and other external partners through e-mail and other appropriate vehicles. We understand and anticipate that local public health and other partner organizations will also play a role in communicating with the media and the public, and that they will have to address local issues that may not be covered in the standard messages. However, the standard talking points will provide a broad framework for ensuring message consistency. The standard messages/talking points will also be a living document, subject to ongoing revision and updating as new concerns and issues emerge, new information becomes available, and the public health response evolves and changes. The message development process will also involve a two-way flow of information between MDH and its partners, so that the messages can reflect feedback from partner agencies and organizations regarding unmet informational needs, new and emerging issues, any rumors or misinformation that may be circulating, or any other concern that might require a public communication response.
When do we start relaying information to the public?
Communication with the public about pandemic influenza is and should be an ongoing activity, although the intensity of our communications efforts (as well as public receptivity to pandemic influenza information) can be expected to rise and wane, in cyclical fashion, over time. We have already been involved in media-based activities designed to increase public awareness of pandemic issues (see response to question about providing educational materials to the media, above).
The intensity and time-urgency of our public information activities will obviously increase if we are confronted with an actual pandemic flu “event.” That could involve a situation where we have “officially” entered the “pandemic phase,” as determined by CDC or WHO, but it could also involve any of several possible “trigger events” that may serve to heighten public concern, even if we are not dealing with an actual pandemic. When we are responding to an event, we will strive to get our initial messages out as quickly as possible – ideally, within an hour or two – even if we are only able to provide rudimentary information and promise to be back soon with more information. In an actual event, a rapid public communication response is absolutely critical.