By Mary Kate McGrath - June 17, 2020
In April, the White House coronavirus task force issued guidelines to encourage state governors to adopt a phased approach to lifting COVID-19 restrictions, according to NPR. The CDC issued an additional guidance for schools, workplaces, restaurants, churches, and mass transit, with epidemiologists warning that lifting restrictions too soon might result in a second wave of cases. States are supposed to wait for a 14-day downward trajectory in influenza-like illnesses and confirmed virus cases, as well as ensure sufficient hospital capacity and testing for healthcare workers before lifting lockdown restrictions. Once states have met this gating criteria, individuals can begin phased reopening, but keeping the community safe will require constant communication throughout.
Unfortunately, development of a COVID-19 vaccine could be months, if not years, away from becoming a reality. In the history of medicine, a vaccine has rarely been developed in under five years, and antiviral drugs, such as those used to treat HIV, have taken decades to develop as well, as per the New York Times. For COVID-19, vaccine developers are expediting development steps, and a global collaboration on such a scale is unprecedented. Yet, even the most optimistic outlook for a vaccine requires a longtime plan to manage public health and mitigate the economic distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic. State and local leaders must proactively communicate risks, informing the community of best public health practices and providing real-time updates as the situation continues to develop.
Moving forward, the coronavirus pandemic will continue to impact everyday life in communities across the United States and leaders will have to remain nimble and flexible to manage new outbreaks. No matter what threshold your state or local government determines for coronavirus reopening, establishing a comprehensive communication plan to reach community members, small businesses, and other institutions impacted by the virus, is a necessary step for facilitating a safe reopening.
Each community will have unique concerns when it comes to COVID-19, and “hot spots” around the country are likely to initiate a slower reopening. For example, New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, is beginning the first phase of reopening in mid-June, with some 300,000 workers returning to their jobs as outdoor dining, in-store shopping, and some office work. Businesses with permission to reopen are still expected to follow strict social-distancing protocol to the best of their ability, and should rates of infection go up, the city may revert back to the prior stage to prevent a surge similar to the peak of the virus back in April.
Residents might be assuming reopening implies that risk of contracting COVID-19 has decreased, and local leaders have a responsibility to distribute accurate, up-to-date information about the disease in their communities. By collaborating with public health officials, safety managers can better shape reopening plans, and communicate accurate data to people before they leave their homes. Finding a balance between facilitiating economic recovery and preventing spread of the illness reuires inter-departmental communication between agencies.
Many states are hoping aggressive contact tracing programs will help contain new outbreaks of COVID-19, with a team of workers tracking down individuals who tested positive and identifying their close contacts. States with contact tracing programs have made two important discoveries - first, on a positive note, many individuals who have tested positive haven’t come in contact with others, implying that social distancing protocol is working. But contact tracers have also struggled to get patients to answer the phone, with many callers assuming the check-in is a spam call or a hoax.
Raise awareness for contact tracing in your community via mass notification. Administrators can create a campaign to increase the legitimacy of contact tracing programs. In Massachusetts, contact tracing teams proactively sent out a message that read: “Help us help you. To stop COVID in Massachusetts, answer this call,” as per WBUR. Ideally, telecom companies will not block COVID-19 calls or mark them as spam, and local leaders should ensure the Caller ID reads “COVID Team” or a similar identifier.
Epidemiologists agree that masks are extremely effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19. On June 9, a study revealed that population-wide mask use could push COVID-19 transmission down to controllable levels for national epidemics, and could prevent further waves of the disease when combined with some lockdown measures, as per Reuters. Researchers agree that combining widespread mask use in public with social distancing and some lockdown measures could be an, “acceptable way of managing the pandemic and reopening economic activity” before the development of a vaccine.
A mass notification system can also lend itself well to raising awareness of the public health implications of mask wearing. Misinformation campaigns have become more common amid the outbreak, and proactive steps to destigmatize masks can help encourage residents to take these simple public health actions. If possible, community leaders can also help connect individuals with mask distribution sites, especially for those who may not be able to purchase one independently.
COVID-19 planning requires communities to establish reliable testing sites and increase hospital capacity long term. Administrators can make communications more targeted by leveraging SMS Opt-In, a tool that lets community members text a keyword to a present code and receive targeted information. For example, a COVID-19 testing site or field hospital can set a specific code for their operation, allowing patients to opt-in for relevant information upon arrival. By increasing the scope of COVID-19 notification, administrators can prevent confusion and help mitigate unnecessary exposure to the disease.
SMS Opt-In can also help reduce alert fatigue - amid the ever-changing situation, some residents may be experiencing an overload of information. For non-essential messages and awareness raising, SMS Opt-IN can work well to deliver additional information to users without resulting in notification burnout.
Officials looking to bolster public health efforts can also conduct routine check-ins on workers who have contracted COVID-19, making sure that these individuals have access to necessary healthcare and understand self-quarantine protocol. Administrators can use the tool to check in on essential government workers who are sick, and make sure that they are well enough to return to work . Geo-polling features of a mass notification system allows administrators to fill shifts with available and healthy workers at a moment’s notice, helping address ongoing staffing shortages caused by the pandemic. This data can also be used for future reopening plans, providing a big-picture look at community health and wellness that can inform strategic decisions.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
To address and combat the quickly spreading COVID-19 crisis, state and local governments across the United States...