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Social Media and Preparations For the 2009-H1N1 Influenza Epidemic

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

The Executive Office of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s U.S. Preparations For the 2009-H1N1 Influenza is a long and sobering document. Dated August 7, 2009, the report discusses a long list of critical issues and recommendations that need to be addressed now.

Among other things, the report recommends use of modern social media and social networking techniques to support epidemic-related public communications.

As much as I support and use social media, this recommendation is a no-brainer. You need to communicate with people using the means they already use to communicate. Ignoring the role of social and viral media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in the face of the coming epidemic would simply be irresponsible.

Missing from the report, however, are recommendations concerning use of similar technologies to promote communication and collaboration among the many different groups and agencies that need to work together to mitigate the coming epidemic. Given the continued dilution of management responsibilities across a myriad of Federal, state, and local agencies — which the report addresses — failure to address such networked communication opportunities is a significant oversight.

Referring to the Homeland Security Council’s 2006 report National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, the report comments that current epidemic management plans are still diluted:

Primary Federal responsibilities for response to an epidemic are lodged in two departments (DHHS and DHS), with significant involvement of others (Education, Defense, State, Agriculture, Labor), and coordination by White House staff. While the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan provides a comprehensive list of assignments for a multitude of offices, agencies, and departments involved in the Federal planning process, the large number of tasks and responsible units tends to obscure the primary seat of responsibility.

The report recommends that clear responsibilities be centralized in the White House and that responsibilities are to be spread across multiple agencies; specific mentions are made of Homeland Security and Centers for Disease Control roles.

All these efforts need to be coordinated. People from different organizations and professional and medical backgrounds will need to communicate and share information, irrespective of traditional organizational lines of authority. Social media and modern collaboration technologies are ideal communication tools and their use by organizations as diverse as the U.S. Department of Defense and voluntary collectives such as GovLoop demonstrate this.

Notwithstanding this criticism, the report is admirably broad in its sweeping assessment of problems, scenarios, and issues in the following key areas:

* The need for better management and coordination centered on a single person in the White House.
* The need in advance for a series of “planning scenarios” that lay out response in advance given different assumptions about the progress of the epidemic, the number of deaths, and the impacts on society.
* The need for better data about the progress of the epidemic.
* The need for specific mitigation planning concerning vaccines, anti-viral drugs, medical care, and non-medical interventions that diminish virus spread.
* Recommendations to reduce the legal, social, and financial barriers that may actual reduce the effectiveness of the actions that need to be taken to mitigate the epidemic’s effects.
* The need for strengthened communications with the states, health workers, and the general public.
* Recommended improvements to future preparedness.

I highly recommend this report. I’m concerned about this epidemic; the most vulnerable population category includes my two kids; I intend to do my part.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald. Contact Denni svia email at [email protected]

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Dennis McDonald

Michael – another possibility is that a “comprehensive digital communications strategy” will develop by default as the epidemic worsens and social-technology-savvy government workers chart their own courses.

I still think it odd that internal collaboration was not addressed in the “U.S. Preparations For the 2009-H1N1 Influenza” report and wonder if that was an oversight or a recognition that loosening control of cross-department communications is still a sensitive topic.

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria Virginia