Do not envy your friendly neighborhood public health official.
This is an unprecedented time for those folks. As doctors, nurses and other front-line providers care for more people showing symptoms of the coronavirus, those who set and carry out policies are being slammed daily — sometimes hourly — with the latest news, theories, numbers, trends and fears of all things COVID-19, the rapidly spreading disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed thousands worldwide and threatens to overwhelm local hospitals as it slithers its way across Washington.
From the governor’s office to local health districts, officials are charged with keeping people safe and healthy — a job fraught with landmines and barriers in this, the coronavirus era. For all they do, we offer our admiration, heartfelt thanks and support.
In addition, they are charged with keeping people informed. For this, we have a few suggestions. Information is everybody’s friend and ignorance the enemy in this time of crisis.
This is not to take away from the many difficult decisions those officials have had to make and the many wide-reaching and intrusive decrees they’ve put in place to help slow the virus and keep us alive. We get that. This is uncharted territory, and we’re all doing the best we can.
There are lessons to be learned, however, regarding the process of communication that flows (or not) from official sources — not just how and when the public and the media are informed, but how such information spreads from agency to agency.
Look no further than last weekend, which kicked off Saturday with a news conference in the parking lot at Virginia Mason Memorial hospital in Yakima. Concerned with the lack of a state-
issued stay-at-home order for Yakima County, hospital leaders and officials with the Yakima Health District issued their own stay-at-home call.
“The only tool we have in the tool box is for people to stay home,” said hospital CEO Carole Peet in regard to checking the spread of the virus.
On Sunday night, with virus numbers growing at an alarming rate and still no official call from state officials, Dr. Teresa Everson, Yakima Health District health officer, issued a countywide stay-at-home order via news release.
There is no reason to judge county health officials for recognizing a dire need and taking the proactive step that they did. But consider the following:
- After conversations among the health district, Board of Health and the Yakima Valley Office of Emergency Management, the news release wasn’t sent out until 10:30 p.m. Many county residents had gone to bed by then, subsequently waking up to the confusion of an immediate order that instructed many of them to stay home unless going out for necessary food, medicine or medical care.
- In addition to catching media sources off-guard, other stakeholders were largely in the dark for too long. Horace Ward, Office of Emergency Management operations manager, said his agency learned about the stay-at-home order about an hour before the news release was issued. County Commissioner Norm Childress said he learned about it not much before its 10:30 release.
- A Herald-Republic reporter had been told Sunday afternoon that health district officials had no immediate plans to change the status quo. On Monday, despite confusion among employers and employees alike, officials with the Yakima Health District were not responding to media requests for further information to clarify matters.
Like the virus itself, communication breakdowns were not confined to the Valley. There were rumors that Gov. Jay Inslee was considering a statewide stay-at-home order as soon as Friday. But the governor rejected it and waited until Monday instead, the day after Yakima County’s order. His order was televised Monday afternoon, but the livestream by the public-affairs network TVW fell victim to widespread interest and network servers failed, leaving many would-be watchers in the dark.
That incident alone illustrates the level of interest and concern regarding this topic statewide.
Back in Yakima County, officials must remember that it’s far more prudent to keep all stakeholders, including the media, better informed, which in turn will better-inform members of the public and keep them safer and healthier. Communication must be a priority if public agencies want the total support that is vital to keeping COVID-19 at bay.