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Coronavirus: How Local Officials and Emergency Managers Respond

Emergency managers can and should help by lending their expertise in providing shelter and broadcasting good information to the public. Seattle used its AlertSeattle to inform residents about a local case.

As of this morning, there were 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States among 84,144 cases and 2,876 deaths worldwide, according to statistics compiled by Worldometer. The U.S. will undoubtedly encounter more cases, as the spread of the virus was termed inevitable by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

San Francisco has a large Asian population and is a travel destination, so the city has declared a state of emergency to prepare for the spread of the virus, even though there are no cases there yet. It’s a prudent move, according to Lucien Canton, former director of Emergency Services for the city and current emergency management consultant.

Canton said some jurisdictions, depending on location, should be considering such action and begin taking “reasonable precautions” like beginning multilevel planning with regard to supplies and quarantine efforts — where emergency managers can help — and mostly, getting out good, reliable information to the public.

“I think we really need to look at this as a public confidence issue more than anything,” Canton said. “What we sometimes forget is we really don’t know where this is going, but at this point it seems a lot like the flu in that it will make you sick, it will replicate itself but won’t necessarily kill you.”

He said those who have died from the virus so far had pre-existing conditions. The big public health concern is the number of people who could get sick. “It’s going to get out. It’s already too late to contain it,” Canton said. But the reason it’s so contagious is it’s not fatal like SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome], where if you were infected you had a bad chance at survival.”

It is likely that a lot of people will end up in U.S. hospitals and there may be shortages of resources to deal with those numbers.

Emergency managers can and should help by offering their expertise in things like providing shelter and helping disseminate good information to the public. “Obviously public health has the lead, but emergency managers can ask how they can help,” Canton said. “In terms of facilities, we’ve already identified potential shelters, maybe that could help.”

“The focus of a lot of our emergency managers should be to get good information out to the public, make sure they’re being told enough to take reasonable precautions but not necessarily go crazy and become doomsday preppers,” he said.

Alert Technology

One of the U.S cases was in Seattle where the city used its AlertSeattle (from Rave Mobile Safety) notification system to provide information to residents about the coronavirus case.

“It was in the news that there was a reported case and there was enough media attention that we felt like it warranted sending out something so people had good information,” said Matt Auflick, public education and outreach coordinator for Seattle. “We’re still hearing today that the big issue tends to be with people having bad information.”

AlertSeattle has a number of opt-in categories, including an option that incorporates public health. It has 38,000 subscribers who got the messages about the local coronavirus case.

Auflick said the information came from the Seattle and King County Public Health Department, and the city was the sender. “We have a citywide use policy that’s across departments,” he said. “We really look to public health as our experts in that realm and the ones that finalize and approve the messaging.”

Much of the information was counter to what Auflick called the bad information. “Our public health department is pushing a lot of information about anti-stigma messaging. Some of the bad information has resulted in information that the threat was higher than it was.”

There was also a racial component to the bad information that the alerts sought to tamp down. “Issues have come up as far as this being an Asian illness and so that impacts businesses in our Chinatown District and international districts,” Auflick said. “There’s a stigma around masks. Certain cultures are more likely to wear masks, especially during flu season,” he said.

There’s a fear of putting out alerts too often and turning off residents. In this case, there was no negative feedback to the alerts. The alerts themselves were basic: that there was one case; that investigations into who this person had contact with were underway; and where to go for further updates.

The city provided a 1-800 number that the Department of Health had opened up. “It’s good to have a central number to point people to,” Auflick said. “That includes employers who might have questions about people returning from China and elsewhere, and others who had been traveling and guidance about what to do about those people.”