Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 25, 2009

Scanning swine flu story for risk communications lessons

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on April 25, 2009

SECOND UPDATE: Shortly after 5:00 pm (eastern) the New York Times headlined a Reuters story, “8 Students in Queens Likely Had Swine Flu, Officials Say.  Third paragraph reads, “In every single case, illness was mild. Many of the children are feeling better,” Frieden said.”  A Times companion story offers, “Health Agencies Warily Monitor Swine Flu Strain.” 

The New York City Department of Health has released the following statement, “The Health Department is investigating a cluster of respiratory illness in a non-public school in New York City and has determined that at least 8 students have probable human swine influenza. More than 100 of the school’s students were absent several days this week due to fever, sore throats and other flu-like symptoms.”  The full NYC Health Department  statement (choose the link above) is calm, complete, and inspires confidence.

The LA Times is  reporting two new cases have been confirmed in Kansas.
UPDATE: At 1:35 pm (eastern) on Saturday the Reuters headline for a three paragraph blurb of non-information is,  WHO flu experts meeting concludes, no decisions.


At 11:45 am (eastern) on Saturday the BBC headline reads: Mexico Flu has “Pandemic Potential”

Swine Flu could Cause Pandemic: WHO Says is the Washington Post’s lead.

The most complete and updated story at this hour is probably from Bloomberg: Swine Flu May Be Named Event of International Concern.

While WHO and CDC experts are talking, their public information sites have not — yet — changed from yesterday (still no change at 2:45 eastern on Saturday. ) At 4:00 pm updates are showing on the CDC website.  Some elements have time-stamps as early as noon Saturday.  The updates are, however, in my judgment, less than sufficient to in anyway shape this rapidly developing story.



There is a slightly breathless quality to the reporting today (perhaps a poor choice of words given the respiratory illness). Based on what I know, the media stories are accurate.  The urgent tone is — potentially — getting ahead of the facts.  But, if so, this is not the media’s fault.  A  potentially significant threat has suddenly — even mysteriously — emerged.  It deserves serious attention.  The media is doing what it is supposed to do.  The tone reflects the current paucity of authoritative information and comments by authorities who are available to the media.

Consider how the “Gray Lady” started its  Friday story on page A-13 and contrast this  to the start on Saturday’s front page:

STORY A: “An unusual strain of swine flu is circulating among people in the Southwest but is not known to have caused any deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said…” The agency, which has found only seven cases, expects to find more now that it has begun looking intensively for them.

STORY B: “Alarmed Mexican officials, scrambling to control a swine flu outbreak that has killed as many as 68 people and infected possibly 1,000 more in recent weeks, canceled more public events… in and around the capital and said they were considering keeping schools for millions of students here closed into next week

I don’t really need to tell you which — A or B — ran Friday and which ran Saturday.  Given the non-information emerging from the WHO session (UPDATE above), the shift in tone from under-control to crisis-mode is almost sure to increase.

In the early stages of a potential crisis, such as this, there is a substantive need for a proactive public affairs operation that will seek out new information for the media — and public —  be sure the information is accurate, framed as responsibly as possible, and distribute that information as quickly and effectively as possible. (A reader comments that this should be specialist public affairs unit.)

Given the non-information forthcoming from official sources, it is not surprising to see a proliferation of unofficial sources emerge — such as this blog.   The In Case of Emergency blog has brought together a helpful collection of official, non-traditional, and entirely unofficial sources that are tracking the swine flu story. 

In 2004 a former Director-General of WHO said, “We have had great success… controlling outbreaks, but we have only recently come to understand that communications are as critical to outbreak control as laboratory analyses or epidemiology.” Paradoxically, perhaps, one of the best resources on effective risk communications is the CDC’s PandemicFlu site.

EDITORIAL NOTE:  For readers of this blog (let’s admit we often share some rather arcane interests ) there is one small sliver of a silver lining in this story.  Here’s a tantalizing tidbit from the Friday New York Time’s story, “The unusual strain this year was noticed, Dr. Schuchat said, only because the agency was trying out a new diagnostic test at a Navy laboratory and doing more testing than usual through a new Border Infectious Disease Surveillance Project along the Mexican border.”

More information on  BIDS is available from the  program’s CDC website.  Is this what the Secretary was talking about in referring to borders as “living, breathing organisms?”

ScienceInsider reports that the Navy Lab the did the good work was the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 25, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

Again Emergency Public Information is a highly technical arena. Not at all like generic public affairs work. This has the potential to need expert PAR (Protective Action Recommendations) from believeable and credible governmental sources. Good luck WHO and good luck CDC! In the anthrax scare/attack a highly competent but understaffed and underfunded CDC was totally blamed for the incompetence of Secretary HHS Thompson who first argued that the anthrax source was potentially streams in N.Carolina. Secretary Levitt and his Chief of Staff, Richard McKeown, and Julie Gerberding worked hard to get any pandemic info correct. Also Fauci at NIH. Now let’s see where is Secretary Nominee Siebelies (sic) at this moment in her confirmation process. Let’s hope CDC is not the fall guy again for the incompetence of HHS leadership, Congressional inaction, and ObAMA hoping against hope that amatuer night will cut the mustard. Maybe false alarm but maybe not. Perhaps illegal immigration from Mexico will drop down in priority. Also did you know that Mexico City recently had a no-notice cutoff of water supplies to over 5M? Hey maybe that was prophylactic measure and virus waterborne and not an aerosal? Just speculating! Good post and good one situation to follow closely. Exactly who is on 24/7 in DHS and HHS on this one?

Comment by Christopher Tingus

April 26, 2009 @ 8:49 am

From here on the street Mr. President, Mr. & Mrs. Joe Citizen are not too pleased with the Pelosi – Frank discord as folks here don’t see any economic recovery from taxpayer dollars in the trillions and now hear whispers of a deathly “pandemic” which will most assuredly quickly cause much anxiety within….

Given the present political and economic global scenario and the apathetic cheek turning of local elected and self-serving individuals, open and truthful communication is essential. We are a hardy folks and very indeed quite resilient.

With many years of senior global business consulting experience affording me the opportunity to reach out and talk globally to frends and business relationships in every continent, my (our) advice Mr. President, we need to hear from you in a very clear and decisive as well as updated manner as information becomes available for pandemic sounds indeed ominous.

CDC, DHS HQ, FEMA and local health authorities must be on the same page and – proactive – as those of us here expect that even you Mr. President are punched in on the clock 24×7.

Confident that you, too feel the same, with the words Swine Flu and “pandemic” be tossed about, it is you we expect to hear from as the anxieties here on the street from an economic contraction and political strife which even we know from watching CNN’s the “Situation Room” and who we trust to give us the real truth as those we have entrusted by precious vote have failed us on both sides of the aisle….

We often read on this highly regarded blog the contributions of William R. Cumming, a a gentleman who per his CV has worked for the governemnt, is brilliant in his observations and has mentioned more than once the need for commitment to civil defense.

I have asked government officials to confer with Mr. Cumming for we here on the street see an astute individual with much experience and willingness to share his perspective…The question we ask is anyone home in Washington these days? Pakistan is bout to fall, the Egyptian government is besieged by fundalentalists and we hear announcements from Washington of signs of recovery and then a revision that talk of the turn around in recovery may not be as accurate as thought before – what recovery??

We here on the street see more neighbors becoming unemployed, houses being foreclosed upon as your administration’s promises have waned and here on this blog, we seek information, input from as many as possible who have our sincere interests at heart and Love this great nation and understand that there are in fact a bunch of thugs as we refer to them seeking our demise – Our forefathers fled the homeland of oppression and to my disbelief, I now see neighbors protesting government here with tea bags and running to nuy guns which proves once again that history is a good lesson, vital to understanding civilization and “The good ‘ol boys of the Beltway” with these guys and dolls not only knowing how much it costs us for a gallon of milk as we run around trying to figure out how to survive.

Mr. President when people are beginning to die from something called the Swine Flu which seemingly evolved overnight and rumors show it derived in Mexico spread by “illegals” – I suggest that you may have US Citizens with gun in hand closing their own nation’s borders themselves –

To our foes and to “The good ‘ol boys of the Beltway” let no one underestimate the American people for we are very nationalistic and whle we are the most charitable people written in the book, the CDC, DHS HQ, FEMA and Pelosi-Frank who have millions listed in their personal worth will now be allowed to be out of touch on this Swine Flu epidemic as this will evolve as the survival of the fittest and we expect our government leadership to be forthwith with the “experts” advising us as to just how we can protect ourselves and our families while reaching out to our neighborhoods….

What about millions in “fiat” dollars being printed not for Hank Paulson and the boys, but for a new civil defense program, an initiative with this blog’s brilliant and occasional contributor – William R. Cumming – as at least an advisor if invited to play a role and this gentleman is in fact interested….He appears to be very much commtted to public service, a compassionate individual who understands government and its responsbility.

We need stability, not this ongoing wavering tone from Congress on every issue ….Enough is enough!

Today it is tea bags, tomorrow it may be a recall of elected officials for failing to protect the good and most charitable citizens of the greatest nation – USA!

Christopher Tingus
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 26, 2009 @ 10:17 am

There is a Chief Medical Officer position in DHS! What do we know about the origins, staffing, budget and role of that office and how does it relate to possible pandemic situation? Will the incumbent of that office (if there is one) be the Chief Spokesperson on DHS roles and responsibilities in this situation? I can find no formal delegation or description in that office. If it is career or non-career, would like to see the Postion Description! Do the Secretary and Deputy know cold the role of DHS in any pandemic? Know of no questions ever asked of DHS appointees, either Senate confirmed or otherwise, in confirmation hearings or in hearings before Congress asking for DHS role to be described in Pandemics and asking if legal authority adequate for that role! Get to work OGC DHS and let’s have a published public opinion on legal authority of DHS in Pandemics? Better late than never! OCC FEMA? Can a Pandemic event be declared a Presidential disaster or emergency under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act when there is no Fire, Flood, or Explosion? Let’s see that opinion and have it provided to key Committees in Congress and made public! Also does it have OLC/DOJ concurrence since OLC has reversed the former OGC FEMA and perhaps OCC on every issue ever opinied upon by that office relating to the Stafford Act and its partially revoked, supplemented, and current predecessor the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-288). Also is DHS stovepiped by HHS/CDC as to any role and critical pandemic response info? Does the INTEL section of DHS have any role in this event? I am no longer referring to it as an incident since CDC and WHO are now treating this event with utmost concentration and seriousness. Hope we can find out answers to some of the above. Also who briefs the White House on this event and who is briefed and who is present? Too bad this happened in first 100 days for Obama but hey as President Carter said on the record “Life is Not Fair.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 26, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

See the editorial note on Navy Lab work and many thanks. Of course the big issue is there evidence of any engineering in the viral DNA?

Pingback by A quick rewind to risk communication | Homeland Security Watch

April 28, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

[…] with the Saturday morning news cycle in Asia and Europe, the swine flu story was going viral faster than the disease […]

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