Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 3, 2015

Community Policing at Work in Boston

Obviously, there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding the Boston Police and FBI shooting of a suspected ISIS sympathizer. Recent reporting indicates he and co-conspirators were planning on attacking Boston police personnel, after discarding an earlier plot to behead anti-Islam political activist Pamela Geller.

Putting aside the details of a quickly evolving case (the specifics of which will likely take some time to become clear and final), what I found interesting about today’s development’s was the vivid dividends of Boston Police’s community outreach efforts.

Police showed a surveillance video of the shooting to Boston-area religious leaders Wednesday. They said in a news conference that they did not see Rahim shot in the back or talking on the phone.

“What the video does reveal to us very clearly is that the individual was not on a cell phone, was not shot in the back, and that the information presented by others not on the case was not accurate,” Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts said.

Other faith leaders said the video was not high quality, but that they could tell Rahim was pursuing the Boston police officer and FBI agent who had approached him.

Imam Abdullah Faaruuq of the Mosque for the Praising of Allah called the video “vague,” but said that at least part of the investigators’ account was supported.

This outcome is not a happy coincidence or random gathering of community leaders.  Instead it is the result of years of engagement by the Boston Police with various communities.  It is work that takes time, leads to little immediate results, but is vitally important in the long run for situations such as this.  A video of a portion of this press conference:

 

You can watch more of Boston Police Commissioner William Evans in the following talk on “Latest Trends in Big City Policing,” recently given at a conference hosted by Rave Mobile Safety. While I should warn you it is not the most succinct presentation, it manages to be both informative and funny.  Commissioner Evans talks a lot about community policing, sharing stories about Occupy Boston, the Marathon Bombings, and sharing his opinion on issues such as the use of body cameras.  He also might mention casing Patriot owner Robert Kraft’s house with the current Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh…

 

May 28, 2015

2015 National Preparedness Report

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on May 28, 2015

The 4th edition of the National Preparedness Report was released on May 28th.  The Report is available at this link: https://www.fema.gov/national-preparedness-report.

Major findings include:

· Recent events, including the epidemic of Ebola virus disease, have highlighted challenges with coordinating the response to and recovery from complex incidents that do not receive Stafford Act declarations.

· Businesses and public-private partnerships are increasingly incorporating emergency preparedness into technology platforms, such as Internet and social media tools and services.

· Environmental Response/Health and Safety, Intelligence and Information Sharing, and Operational Coordination are additional core capabilities to sustain, which are capabilities in which the Nation has developed acceptable levels of performance for critical tasks, but which face potential performance declines if not maintained and updated to address new challenges.

· Cybersecurity, Housing, Infrastructure Systems, and Long-term Vulnerability Reduction remained national areas for improvement, and Economic Recovery re-emerged as an area for improvement from 2012 and 2013. Access Control and Identity Verification is a newly identified national area for improvement.

· Perspectives from states and territories on their current levels of preparedness were similar to previous years. All 10 core capabilities with the highest self-assessment results in 2012 and 2013 remained in the top-10 for 2014; Cybersecurity continues to be the lowest-rated core capability in state and territory self-assessments.

· While Federal departments and agencies individually assess progress for corrective actions identified during national-level exercises and real-world incidents, challenges remain to comprehensively assess corrective actions with broad implications across the Federal Government.

Exploring a possible strategic analogy: Density = Mass/Volume

Over the last many days an extraordinary volume of water has encountered the structural and human density of the fourth largest city in the United States.  The Greater Houston metropolitan region has a population of 6.22 million and a population density of 630.3 persons per square mile.

During the month of May over twenty inches of rain has fallen across much of East Texas.  In the Houston area on Monday night over ten inches fell in a period of only six hours. Rain continued to fall on Tuesday and Wednesday.

This quantity of rain in a comparatively contained space over such a short period of time would profoundly challenge the equilibrium of most natural environments.  The built environment on which humans depend is seldom as resilient. Pack millions of humans into a dense urban environment and whatever our individual resilience, there will be a range of interdependencies that increase everyone’s risk. We can be surprised.

Extraordinary external volume can seldom be entirely avoided.   This is true for potential threats  beyond precipitation. Denial of service attacks, mass suicide bombings, and uncontrolled oil spills are other examples. Unusual volume, concentrated in time and/or repeating time after time, disrupts and destroys.

Urban population density is a choice, but for the last two centuries it has also been a persistent — and accelerating — choice.  There are real benefits.  Density is likely to increase in the years ahead.

Given the loss of life, destruction of property, and the extent of human misery caused, I am sure some will be appalled at my lack of apparent empathy, but the floods in Texas and Oklahoma have — among other things — reminded me of some junior high physics problems.

Density Volume Mass

If density and volume are each highly elastic and mostly beyond our control, we seem to be left with mass as the input with which we might still hope to influence outcomes.

In seventh grade I was taught that mass is the property of a body which determines the strength of its mutual gravitational attraction to other bodies and its resistance to being accelerated by a force, such as a volume of water. Generally we protect populations and the built environment by increasing the size and weight of dams, walls, and other “resistance” structures that retain, divert, disperse or otherwise reduce the force of any threatening volume.

At least here on earth, we don’t always give much attention to gravity because there’s not much we can do about it.

Mrs. Holman taught me that gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental interactions of nature, the others being electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear.  Yet despite its comparative weakness, gravity is absolutely necessary to the universe as we know it.  Both gravitation and electromagnetism act over infinite distance to mediate diverse actions.

Both as a matter of physics and as a metaphor for broader application, gravity determines mass through interactions and relationships among multiple bodies.  In addition to adding size and weight to strengthen the built environment, what ought we do in regard to interactions and relationships to reduce the risk of volume and density converging?

In the midst of the flooding in Oklahoma and Texas, as in the recent earthquake in Nepal, as in the aftermath of Sandy and Katrina, and in the ongoing recovery from the Triple Disaster in Japan, there has been a tendency to emphasize “weighty” engineering solutions. Good. Great.

But interactions and relationships are also an important part of the formula.

April 30, 2015

Homeland security: YES or NO?

On Monday night someone torched the Youth Empowered Society (YES) drop-in center in a tough section of Baltimore.  According to Kevin Rector, writing in the Baltimore Sun,

The clashes that left at least 144 vehicles and 15 structures on fire also claimed much of the center’s space, sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. in the 2300 block of North Charles, Law said. Video surveillance showed no one entering the building, so Law believes someone “threw something burning through the front windows.” Firefighters who responded had to hack down the front door with an ax to gain entry. On Tuesday, the drop-in center – a safe space for homeless youth during the day and a hub of information for them to connect with other service providers – was a sad sight. It’s front office space had a layer of thick black sludge from ash and water to smother the flames.

YES is a youth-led, organization being incubated by the not-for-profit Fusion Partnership.  YES describes itself as follows:

YES Drop-In Center is Baltimore City’s first and only drop-in center for homeless youth. YES Drop-In Center is a safe space for youth who are homeless and between the ages of 14-25, to get basic needs met and establish supportive relationships with peer staff  and allies that help them make and sustain connections to long-term resources and opportunities… YES develops the leadership and workforce skills of homeless and formerly homeless youth through our peer-to-peer model: providing training, coaching, and employment so youth staff can effectively serve their peers and achieve meaningful, livable-wage employment after their time with YES. YES employs seven homeless and formerly homeless youth (three who serve full-time, and four part-time) and four staff who are allies…

Statistics on homelessness are unreliable, but on any single day it is estimated at least 600 Baltimore youth are homeless.  In any one year more than 2000 students enrolled in Baltimore City schools experience some period of homelessness.  Last year YES claimed to have served about one-third of this population.

Is any of this a homeland security issue?

If an emergency management agency was trying to serve “vulnerable populations” or enhance the resilience of the “whole community”, I expect YES would be a meaningful organization to engage.

If YES was serving a mostly Somali, Yemeni, or several other immigrant communities, would it be on some sort of intelligence scan?  If it was serving the educational and employment needs of undocumented immigrants to the United States, would a couple of DHS components be interested in YES?

I think reasonable people can disagree on whether or not the issue of youth homelessness is a homeland security issue.  There is an even stronger case, at least in my mind, for it not being a Homeland Security issue.

But I also suggest that what we have seen happen in Baltimore — and in Minneapolis, Paris, Birmingham (UK and US), Hamburg, and elsewhere — provides plenty of evidence that these social issues are not unrelated to Homeland Security.

This evidence also points to the role that civic enterprises — such as YES — can perform at the seams between individuals, communities, and the public sector. Boundaries are important in the public sector.  Carefully observed — and enforced — limits are especially important in a field like counter-terrorism.  For a whole host of reasons from fiscal to constitutional, we don’t want public sector agencies blithely stepping outside their statutory roles.

But there are also profound problems that messily spill over these important boundaries.

For too long, it seems to me, we have viewed smaller civic enterprises as peripheral, charitable, one-offs.  The evidence is accumulating that they are, instead, crucially important contributors to any systemic and sustainable strategy for engaging a wide-range of social challenges… including several regularly featured at this blog.

April 23, 2015

Gulf oil spill: Lessons still to be learned

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 23, 2015

It has been five years since an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed eleven and initiated several weeks of an uncontrolled release of oil from the well-head.  Over 200 million gallons of oil are thought to have escaped into the Gulf of Mexico.

I perceive the lessons-learned — or what might still be learned — from responding to the Gulf oil spill are at least as important as those we have tried to learn from 9/11 and Katrina.

What can and should be done, and sometimes not done, when dealing with big footprint, multi-consequence disasters that unfold over an extended period of time?  How is such an event to be engaged when the technical, experiential, and even intellectual resources needed are in short supply?  How does leadership and management operate when authority and competence and capability are scattered across various public and private entities? What can the lessons-learned from five years ago tell us regarding drought, sea-level rise, pandemics, and other disasters that are as much cumulative as acute?

Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard Commandant who was pulled out of retirement to serve as the National Incident Commander for the Gulf oil spill has tried to help us learn these lessons.  Here is some of what he said back in September 2010.

When I was designated as the national incident commander, I sat down with a small group of folks who became my cadre and senior staff. I wanted to focus on what needed to be done about the universe — above the unified level that had been established. I wanted to focus on those things that were distracting unified area command from doing their job: working inter agency issues in Washington and dealing with the governmental structures, Congress and so forth…

I was a 39-year veteran of the coast guard. The last thing we want is the 3,000 mile screwdriver. We would leave tactical control as close to the problem as we could… I would like to characterize the national incident command as a thin client. To use a software term. Necessary to integrate but no more than what is necessary and without adding layers of bureaucracy.

The Incident Command System that was established in New Orleans was the basis for… the coordination of command. That is a sound system. Incident command is one of the ways to approach these spills…

If we look at what transpired, we need to know what the basic doctrine says against the reality of what we found on the ground… We did not have a large, monolithic oil spill. We had hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that moved in different directions over time that moved beyond the geographical area that was contemplated in any response plan, putting the entire coast at risk. That required resources above the plan. It required coordination across state boundaries and federal regional boundaries for the team…

We have worked on smaller spills with state and local governments with smaller responsible parties. Some of the anomalies associated with this spill that challenged the doctrine need to be looked at in detail for constructive changes to the contingency plan which should remain in place, and how we need to manage large, and, as evidence in the future that defy the traditional parameters of the incident command system…

First, I think we need greater clarity moving forward on what the responsible parties, who they are, what they do, and how they interact with the contingency plan. We have worked with the responsible parties for over 20 years, very effectively managing oil spills…There were two basic issues that were not well understood by most of the people of the US and political leaders: There would be a constructive role for the entity that was attributed to causing the event. That created concern that could not be explained away. Even though we had worked effectively in that construct in responding to oil spills. The second is the fiduciary link between the representative of the responsible party and unified command and their shareholders. There are legal requirements for documenting costs which you have to carry on a balance sheet that they cannot sever.

The second notion was difficult for the people of this country to understand and our political leaders was ultimately, there is a fiduciary link between the responsible party and shareholders which would bring into question whether or not a decision should have been made based on the environment and the response itself. As stated in the national contingency plan and by statute, the responsible party is to resource the response and the federal government is to oversee their response…That is what occurred, but as you look at the enormity of this response, and the local implications, the isolated geographical areas where access is an issue, where logistical support for this type of response is an issue, a lot of the details that are carried out by those contractors that are brought to the scene are done in a contractual obligation basis with the responsible party under the general supervision of the federal government…

There is a discussion about what constitutes an authority to take action, the day-to-day supervision of workers. How this gets interpreted in terms of feedback and the effects you are trying to achieve. There is a couple of things we need to do. We need to look at the contingency plan and think about what we need by the concept of responsible party and how we want that to look in the future…

Admiral Allen is one of those rare people who somehow speak more clearly than the transcript can sometimes capture.  Thanks to C-Span, you can see and hear his extended remarks here.

As time and space expand, typically so does the number and diversity of those involved in engagement. Allen sometimes refers to the difference between theater command and incident command.  I wonder if just using the word “command” may be misleading.

March 14, 2015

Watch carefully, explain frequently

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 14, 2015

According to the World Health Organization, deaths from the year-plus outbreak of Ebola now exceed 10,000.  But as of Friday, March 13 it has been three weeks since a new transmission was confirmed in Liberia.

A team of Reuters reporters — or their headline editor — summarize Liberia’s key lessons-learned as watch carefully and explain frequently.  Both depending on (and potentially contributing to) trust-building community engagement.

Liberia was hit hard and, the nation’s President admits, slow to react.  But what seems to now differentiate Liberia’s — tentative — eradication from continuing (if much slowed) transmission in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea has been the accuracy of “contact-tracing” — essentially a mapping of personal relationships and movement related to any confirmed transmission.

This is classic public health practice. But to actually do it depends on a shared sense of solidarity… community… common cause… and community-oriented organization that cannot be taken for granted.

The recent measles outbreak in the United States demonstrates the epidemiological challenges that can emerge from a break-down of trust in communities.  I am intrigued (tempted?) with analogies to public safety and counter-terrorism challenges. Many historians of community policing trace its origins to public health models.  But I will not go there today.

It is worth noting that in this week’s Nature, respected scientists warn that the H7N9 flu virus is rapidly mutating.  The Los Angeles Times reports,

Overall, this second wave of H7N9 influenza viruses represents “a major increase in genetic diversity” compared with the viruses in the first wave, the study authors wrote. Unless live poultry markets are permanently closed, merchants stop transporting chickens from region to region, and other control measures are put in place, the virus will “persist and cause a substantial number of severe human infections.” So far, most people were sickened by handling infected chickens; cases of the virus spreading directly from person to person have been limited. That might change if the virus mutates, as happened with the H1N1 swine flu pandemic that began 2009. 

In any case, Ebola is not the only potential epidemic (upon, on, among the people) to present a risk.

This may only be a projection of preconceived bias, but in trying to discern what is different in the experience of Liberia and Sierra Leone, I perceive a bottom-up strategy in Liberia and a top-down strategy in Sierra Leone.  Trust-building has been a challenge in both countries.  But the bottom-up strategy (or emergence?) in Liberia has been much more effective.  As a hypothesis to be tested, I would suggest the top-down strategy in Sierra Leone has potentially been as “effective” in suppressing a more sustainable bottom-up approach.

And I surmise this could have implications far-beyond Ebola.

February 11, 2015

Boston snowstorms an emergent crisis

 IMAG2214

 

Claire Rubin, the Recovery Diva herself, made a very insightful observation regarding the string of snowstorms that have hit the Boston area:

I guess you could consider three major snowstorms in three weeks a slow onset disaster for Boston at the present time.

I must have been too busy shoveling snow and catching up on “House of Cards” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes (no, seriously…that show had very good writing) not to have seen this myself.

Boston is a city that can handle a snowstorm.  Indeed, it can handle any single blizzard.  What is causing problems is the quick succession of substantial snow storms in the past month, along with sub-freezing temperatures preventing melting, that has slowly choked the transportation arteries of this densely built city.  This is leading to an unfortunate set of cascading outcomes that normally would not be a concern during normal winter weather.

This is what Harvard professors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt refer to as an “emergent crisis.”  They explain:

But some forms of crisis do not arrive suddenly. They fester and grow, arising from more ordinary circumstances that often mask their appearance. We term such situations emergent crises – a special and especially difficult category.

What makes emergent crises problematic? First, they arise from normally variable operating conditions, making emerging problems difficult to spot as a break from typical operating and response patterns.

When and if the problem is spotted, an individual or group with technical expertise in the issue (as it is understood at the time) is generally assigned to address it.

But what if the diagnosis is not entirely correct? If the standard approach doesn’t work? If the response is too small or too late? A second major challenge of coping with emerging crisis situations is that the initial responder(s), if not immediately successful, either fail to diagnose their inadequacies or resist calling for additional help. Often, experts (and, perhaps even more so, teams of experts) are not adept at recognizing that their approach is not working. Often, they ignore “disconfirming evidence” (i.e., the flow of data tending to show that what they are doing is not working) and “escalate commitment” to their existing approach. The person or team working on the situation may not only believe that they are about to succeed (with just a little more effort and time) but also feel pressure not to lose face if they fail to handle the assigned situation. Moreover, they may resist seeking help.

The third reason that emergent crises are challenging is that they present crisis managers with all of the standard challenges of managing true crisis emergencies—the difficulty of recognizing novelty, the challenge of creativity and improvisation of new approaches and designs under stress, the painful realities of the errors and rough edges that arise when executing new and untested  routines. But these standard challenges now arise in the context of organizations and teams that are already deployed and working on the situation

It sounds like this is what is happening, at least in part, in Boston due to the almost unprecedented buildup of snow.  Specifically in regards to the transportation infrastructure, both for cars and all forms of public transportation.

Confronted with at first just one large storm, city and Commonwealth agencies followed SOP to clear roads and train tracks of snow.  Normally, this is more than adequate to return some semblance of normal life back to the area. Unfortunately, one big storm was followed by another and another (and potentially another again this weekend). Standard plowing and snow removal procedures could not keep up with the amounts, streets became clogged with snow piles, and the aging and underfunded public transportation system (locals refer to it as the “T”) began to break down under the combination of snow and cold.

Five hundred members of the Massachusetts National Guard were activated Tuesday to help with snow removal.

“These men and women will deploy across Eastern Massachusetts today,” Gov. Charlie Baker said, adding MEMA will determine which towns help is most needed.

Baker said the state has purchased two additional snow melters that can process about 25 truckloads of snow every hour.

“We are dealing with unprecedented circumstances here,” Baker said.

Boston-area subways, trolleys and commuter rail trains shut down remained idle Tuesday, with only limited bus service running. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said it needed the break to clear snow and ice from tracks and to assess equipment damaged by the spate of storms.

“The accumulating snow is making it virtually impossible to keep rail lines operational,” the transit agency said.

Boston’s transit system, the nation’s oldest, has been particularly hard hit this winter. The buildup of snow and ice on trolley tracks combined with aging equipment has stalled trains, delaying and angering commuters.

That would be 78.5 inches of snow, so far, in Boston itself.

Buffalo got more than that in just a few days this past November.  Issues of snow removal were more difficult at first, but the impact was very localized and the area benefited from a lot more space where to put the snow.  Once cars were unburied and major roads cleared, a region where almost everyone is dependent on cars for travel began to get back to normal.

Boston is an urban area, densely populated and highly dependent on the public transportation system. There are few places to put snow, and when the T isn’t running it is hard for a large portion of the Boston area workforce to actually get to work.  People don’t get to work, work doesn’t happen.  Work doesn’t happen, the customers of those businesses face difficulties.  When the customers of those businesses are healthcare organizations, than a large part of the population faces difficulties. As the Boston Globe reports:

One Boston hospital administrator called it a crisis: Surgeries canceled because there weren’t enough beds, taxis hired to ferry patients who had no other way home.

At another hospital, stockpiles of linens were running so perilously low that staff began rationing them.

Meanwhile, still other hospitals were forced to rely on the generosity of Boston police officers to deliver essential staff members to work.

With snow piled up to historic levels, and the region’s subways and commuter rail systems halted Tuesday, administrators labored to keep their hospital doors open, hobbled by a stranded workforce and patients unable to get home.

“This has put us in a capacity crisis situation,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, Massachusetts General Hospital’s medical director for preparedness.

The commuting concerns at South Shore Hospital were not as much about hospital staff members — most don’t rely on trains — but on the workers at a Somerville company that cleans the facility’s linens. So many of the linen company’s employees didn’t make it to work that South Shore was worried about running out of clean sheets and towels.

“We have had to conserve linen,” Darcy said. That doesn’t mean the hospital is reusing linens, she was quick to add, but rather that it was keeping a “close eye on the supplies.”

Back in Boston, hospitals in the cramped Longwood Medical Area grappled with a cornucopia of issues.

Several surgical practices at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center canceled sessions for patients who need to be evaluated before and after surgery because staff members simply couldn’t get in. Other employees at Beth Israel Deaconess who had to get to work arrived via sport utility vehicles rented by the hospital, while some others relied on the Boston Police Department to drive them, hospital spokesman Jerry Berger said.

With even more snow on the way, I’m hoping that the experts have realized their standard operating procedures haven’t been up to the task.

December 18, 2014

Ebola update

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on December 18, 2014

The December 17, WHO situation update is available here.  According to this report, some progress is being made in Sierra Leone, which has replaced Liberia as the nation reporting the most incidents of transmission.

EVD transmission remains intense in Sierra Leone, with 327 new confirmed cases reported in the week to 14 December. While there are signs from the country situation reports that the increase in incidence has slowed and the incidence may no longer be increasing, the country reported the highest number of confirmed cases in epidemiological week 50. 

A major effort was undertaken this week in Sierra Leone to alter population behaviors that are contributing to continued transmission of the disease.  The Guardian (London) reports on some of the strategies being employed.

Reuters has an update on operations as of Wednesday.

UPDATE:

On Friday the Washington Post — which has done distinguished reporting on  the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — published a big front page feature on the situation in Sierra Leone.

Also on Friday NPR interviewed the CDC Director who is the midst of a site visit to West Africa.  Dr. Thomas Frieden warns of the risk that the virus might become endemic and therefore a perpetual source of recurring spikes in transmission.

December 11, 2014

Going the wrong way in Sierra Leone

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on December 11, 2014

Eboa 12_10

Ebola concentrations in West Africa.

The map comes from the December 10 WHO Situation Update.  Also from this report is a very troublesome finding, highlighted below.

Effective contact tracing ensures that the reported and registered contacts of confirmed EVD cases are visited daily to monitor the onset of symptoms during the 21-day incubation period of the Ebola virus. Contacts presenting symptoms should be promptly isolated, tested for EVD, and if necessary treated, to prevent further disease transmission.

During the week of 1 December, 95% of all registered contacts were visited on a daily basis in Guinea, 96% in Liberia, and 84% in Sierra Leone (a steady decline since week 44, during which 94% of registered contacts were reached). However, the proportion of contacts reached was lower in many districts. Each district is reported to have at least one contact-tracing team in place.

On average, 17 contacts were listed per new case in Guinea during the week to 1 December, 22 in Liberia, and 6 in Sierra Leone.

Resilience by Design

On Monday the Mayor of Los Angeles released a report entitled Resilience by Design.  It gives particular attention to how Los Angeles can take steps now to mitigate the consequences of major risks, especially an earthquake.

This is the kind of document that — too often — only appears after a major event.  It is significant that one of the first steps Mayor Garcetti took upon his election was appointment of a Science Advisor for Seismic Safety and tasking her to undertake this analysis.

The report gives particular attention to:

  • Resilience of building stock — It is interesting that this is treated as a matter of economic resilience as well as public safety.
  • Resilience of the water system — This is what worries me most regarding the vulnerability of the Los Angeles basin.
  • Resilience of the telecommunications systems — This is a key interdependency that can divide or multiply every other response and recovery capability.

There are, obviously, other crucial problems.  But too many of these kind of studies try to take-on too much.  If everything is a priority, really nothing is a priority.

These are three strategic elements within the ability of city government to seriously engage.  Enhancing the resilience of these three elements will improve the ability of the city and the whole community to address other challenges.

See the full report here.

December 4, 2014

100,000 Doors

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 4, 2014

Recently my non-blogging life has experienced a set of interesting, but time-consuming convergences.  As a result my engagement at HLSWatch will be constrained for several weeks, potentially a few months.  

In my judgment the task of this blog is to amplify, aggregate, analyze and occasionally advocate.  Until more time emerges from the convergence, I will mostly use this Thursday post to amplify a situation someone else has written about, but that has not gotten much mainstream attention.

The Ebola threat continues to be deadly in West Africa and despite considerable progress still presents a potential threat to global health.  Here is the December 3 WHO Situation Update.

Local (whether Dallas or Monrovia) and global engagement of this threat has also been an interesting case-study in prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, and — we hope — recovery.  It has been fascinating, at least to me, how crucial “whole community” engagement has been to bending the transmission curve.  

For reasons that are not yet entirely clear, Liberia and Guinea have made much more progress on changing population behaviors than has Sierra Leone.  This is despite considerable efforts by the Freetown government for a period of several months.  On Black Friday the New York Times ran a related story on its front page.  The following is from Tuesday’s Concord Times, a leading newspaper in Sierra Leone. It was written by Mohamed Massaquoi.

–+–

The Disaster Management Department in the Office of National Security, with support from UNDP, will be embarking on a door-to-door campaign in new Ebola epicentres across the country, targeting 100,000 households in the next two weeks in Waterloo, Port Loko and Moyamba with specific life-saving information.

The campaign, which is expected to reach one million people, has commenced following the recruitment and training of 300 community disaster management volunteers in Moyamba last week.

The volunteers, drawn from localities in new Ebola epicentres, will disseminate information ranging from the importance of early treatment, keeping families safe from infection while waiting for help, to welcoming survivors back into the community as a way of reducing stigma associated with Ebola.

The UNDP-supported campaign is part of national efforts to engender behaviour change in order to stem the spread of the Ebola virus disease in Sierra Leone.

In the past 21 days, Sierra Leone has recorded an exponential rise in the number of Ebola infections. Latest WHO figures show that while reported case incidence is stable in Guinea with 148 confirmed cases reported in the week to 23 November, stable or declining in Liberia – 67 new confirmed cases in the week to 23 November, Sierra Leone recorded 385 new confirmed cases in the week to 23 November.

In addition to the continued rise of cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, the epicentre of the outbreak has shifted from the east of the country (Kailahun and Kenema) to the north-west, including Bombali, iron ore mining district of Port Loko and the Western Area, especially Waterloo and Freetown.

The Western Area continues to have the highest rate of infection, with 280 cumulative cases in the past week. Port Loko is also a major area of concern, with 120 cases in the past 7 days, according to WHO figures.

Chief Alimamy Bethembeng II of Waterloo, himself a volunteer in the door-to-door campaign in his community, enthused that with the right information, using face-to-face methods and using people who are part of the community, things would hopefully change. “We have to defend our communities from Ebola,” he said as he moved from house-to-house in the Faya-Mambo neighbourhood in Waterloo, one of the worst hit areas in the Western Area.

During one of the training sessions in Port Loko, Director of Disaster Management Department, Mary Mye-Kamara, said that the face-to-face campaign has proved very successful in slums across Freetown, and that it is the preferred method for effective awareness-raising on Ebola.

She said: “People in some of these communities are still suspicious of outsiders coming into their neighbourhoods and villages telling them about Ebola. Some of them think that these outsiders are the ones spreading the virus. This is why we are engaging the local people, training them so that they will do the awareness raising themselves. That is the only way forward now.”

She added: “Without community ownership this is difficult, even impossible to make any meaningful headway. The imams need to understand and accept that they cannot be doing the same burial rites like before…otherwise the virus will spread.”

Mye-Kamara noted further that denial is still very high, as is distrust and reticence in communities, thus urging everyone to get involved in the campaign.

“People said to us why should they be bothered to take their sick relatives to the hospital and treatment centres when the ones who had been taken before did not return? ‘They are going to die anyway’. But now we are saying to our compatriots that, with early treatment, there is a huge chance of survival. We are showing them evidence of people who have recovered from the virus. They are seeing it and we continue to hope things will change. Ebola will go,” she said.

Denial, suspicion about the spread of the disease, low level of knowledge and information are still very much prevalent especially among the poor in urban and rural areas. The face-to-face campaign hopes to target the hard-to-reach villages and communities with the right information in Port Loko, Moyamba and Waterloo in particularly, where the virus is spreading.

UNDP Programme Manager Saskia Marijnissen says, “Stopping the Ebola outbreak will not only depend on improved knowledge, but also on a change in attitude and practices. Our approach actively engages community members in a dialogue to motivate behaviour change.”

November 26, 2014

Stafford at twenty-six

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Disaster,Legal Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on November 26, 2014

Quin Lucie authored this post. Mr. Lucie is an attorney with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and received his masters degree in Homeland Security Studies from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security or the Federal Government.

–+–

A Quarter Century More?

Nearly 26 years after it was passed, it’s time to take another look at the Stafford Act.

November 23, 2014 was the 26th anniversary of Public Law 100-707, The Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Amendments of 1988. Probably doesn’t ring a bell does it? But if you’re reading this, you might know the name of the 1974 disaster relief statute it renamed, The Robert T. Stafford Act, or as most just call it, the Stafford Act.

The Stafford Act was the fifth major change to a series of Disaster Relief Acts beginning in 1950 and amended or replaced in 1966, 1969, 1970 and 1974. The Stafford Act itself has seen at least four significant amendments since 1988. However, none of these later changes was done holistically. They were all crafted in a near vacuum of each other.

In 1993 and 1994, partly in response to the abysmal response to Hurricane Andrew, Congress first amended the powers of the Civil Defense Act of 1950 and then completely removed them. Some of the preparedness authorities of the old act found their way into a new title to the Stafford Act. The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 added significant mitigation authorities. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (PKEMRA), for the first time, explicitly authorized the activities of FEMA, though those changes appear in the Homeland Security Act, not the Stafford Act. In the Stafford Act, PKEMRA made subtle changes to its response authorities, such as allowing the President to provide assistance, after a declaration, without a specific request from a Governor. The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 made significant reforms to the way public assistance programs are delivered to State, tribal and local governments and made tribal governments eligible to ask for disaster declarations on their own.

The result of these independent, and occasionally improvised changes has been predictable. There are now major parts of the nation’s most important disaster relief authorities that are either forgotten, misunderstood or no longer work as intended. The lack of national dialogue approaches three decades.

Forgotten.

I’m not aware of a single person in FEMA, much less the Federal Government, outside of myself, who has  taken the time to read the legislative history of the Civil Defense Act of 1950, much less understand the factors that led to its demise and reinstatement of part of it in the Stafford Act. Or know why it is the FEMA Administrator, not the President, who was given control over it. There are several parts that could be of significant use to national preparedness efforts, and at least one could provide a very significant source of authority for catastrophic relief efforts. However, these authorities remain outside of the mainstream of planning efforts and the knowledge of emergency managers.

Misunderstood.

“FEMA could develop an updated formula… to determine the capacity of jurisdictions to respond to those disasters.” So stated Mark E Gaffigan, Managing Director, Natural Resources and Environment Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in February of this year. What Mr. Gaffigan failed to realize, even though he correctly labeled these formulas as recommendations, was the reasons they have not been updated in decades (Mr. Gaffigan said these fomulas have not been updated since 1986, I’m not sure that is correct – the particular regulation was last updated in January, 1990). Those reasons, which I spelled out in a post on this blog last year, were a direct result of Congress intentionally not wanting to reign in disaster declarations and to keep the criteria broad enough to allowed affected states and jurisdictions to lobby for a declaration.

No longer work as intended.

At that same February hearing, Collin O’Mara, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, spoke at length about how his state was not rewarded for significant pre-storm mitigation efforts it took, while New Jersey was rewarded with billions of dollars of assistance for failing to make similar efforts before Hurricane Sandy. It was clear from the testimony at this hearing that the Stafford Act, at least in parts, is no longer operating as intended.

In some cases, years of experience extracting Federal dollars under the law may have led to the exploitation of inefficiencies that can promote less than optimal mitigation strategies while discouraging more useful resilience policies. It probably now makes more sense for some state and local governments to avoid taking mitigation measures for certain risks, as they will be penalized or at least lack compensation for those measures, and instead wait for a future disaster and then use federal funding at no more than 25 cents on the dollar. In a future Stafford Act, a way needs to be found to reward the efforts of Delaware and Secretary O’Mara while incentivizing the next New Jersey to act before disaster.

These changes can be seen in real time in the States of Illinois and Pennsylvania. Illinois, who experienced several recent events where they did not receive a Federal disaster declaration, has seen legislation introduced in both its own legislature to provide state disaster assistance, and in the U.S. Senate by its two Senators to amend FEMA’s disaster declaration criteria. The proposed state law, last referred to a rules committee in April, is consistent with years of national disaster relief practice, namely that disasters should be handled locally, and then by the States before seeking Federal assistance. On its face, funds available under this law would be available immediately to local governmental bodies without waiting on the Federal government. If this reflects the consensus of the current Congress, it is this type of legislation that would presumably be encouraged and incentivized in a new Stafford Act. On the other hand, the legislation introduced by the two senators is a bit puzzling as it appears to treat FEMA’s regulations for disaster declarations as binding, when in fact they are only recommendations.

In Pennsylvania, there is a similar debate going on. Unlike in Illinois, Pennsylvania would make funds contingent on the fact areas eligible for assistance are not covered by a “Presidential disaster declaration.” This is different than the approach potentially taken by Illinois and could be seen as making Federal funding the primary source of disaster relief, rather than the State (Considering it was Pennsylvania’s own Tom Ridge who was the primary driver of the Stafford Act, it would be interesting for his perspective). Should this statute pass, the State would presumably then make grant assistance under this law unavailable to those in federally declared disaster areas. (After this post was written, a version of this statute was signed into law the last week of October).

Times change.

During the debate over the first disaster relief act in 1950, members of Congress went so far as to ensure its more cynical legislators that under the act there would be “no new agencies or bureaus” authorized under this new law. In fairness it only took around 24 years before a bureau within HUD was solely dedicated to disaster relief and 29 years before the creation of FEMA.

There are two main questions Congress must ask of itself, constituents, and State, tribal and local governments. First, does the Stafford Act currently reflect consensus national priorities for the mitigation, response, and recovery from disasters and the funding of disaster relief? Second, does the Stafford Act, taken as a whole, incentivize the most (politically feasible) efficient strategies for mitigating for, responding to and recovering from disasters? If not, what are the more (most) efficient strategies and can they be adequately prescribed under the current framework of the Stafford Act, or should the Stafford Act be completely restructured?

While not a primary consideration, Congress should also look closely at the relationship between the Stafford Act and the Homeland Security Act. For instance, the primary agency to carry out the Stafford Act, FEMA, has its primary authorities found in the Homeland Security Act. The danger is that such a discussion might quickly bog down over how changes to these two laws might change committee jurisdictions. It might also fuel the underlying friction between “emergency management” and “homeland security” something that is probably continuation of the debate between what is “civil defense” and “all hazards” from decades before.

After six generations of being taken apart, amended and replaced, the Stafford Act, when seen up close, looks more like something found in the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein, cobbled together from years of compromise and improvised in the wake of major disasters. Maybe it’s time to take another peek under the hood and see everything that has been connected to the engine. It’s only been 26 years.

November 20, 2014

Ebola — no sitrep — but an update

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on November 20, 2014

One Wednesday the World Health Organization released a new update on the situation in West Africa.  The rate of new transmissions has continued to decline in Liberia and Guinea.  But the curve is continuing upward in Sierra Leone.

I have not seen a persuasive analysis to explain the difference between the three neighboring nations.  But there is some indication that too many social-networks in Sierra Leona may still be in denial.  Community engagement and organization are widely thought to be what turned-the-curve in Liberia.

On Tuesday a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on fighting Ebola in West Africa.   You can see/hear a video of the hearing and read the prepared testimony at the committee’s website.

I probably will not prepare a new sitrep this weekend as I have the last few weekends.  A couple of new “day job” assignments are going to take a serious commitment through mid-February.  I may be a bit AWOL from HLSWatch.  We’ll see.

November 6, 2014

Local conditions, globalized consequences

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 6, 2014

The following appeared in the November 3 edition of FrontPageAfrica, a leading Liberian news outlet.  The story was reported by Stephen D. Kollie.

As previously noted in Ebola Source Sitrep 3, there seems to have been an unexpected slowing of the Liberian rate of transmission. There are new reports this week, however, of increased transmission rates in neighboring Sierra Leone.  Here is the most recent WHO update.

There has been a remarkable absence of US broadcast media attention to Ebola as most of those treated for the disease in the United States have survived.  The “press” — digital and paper — has been much more attentive.

Late yesterday, President Obama requested a $6.18 billion special appropriation to combat Ebola.  According to the White House website, the funds will be used to

  • Fortify domestic public health and health care systems
  • Contain and mitigate the epidemic in West Africa
  • Speed the development and testing of vaccines and therapeutics
  • Establishing the capacity of vulnerable countries to prevent, detect, and respond to disease outbreaks before they become epidemics that threaten the American people.

–+–

Vahun, Lofa County - Barely seven months after the deadly Ebola Virus hit Lofa County, Liberia’s fourth most populated county (2008 national census) life seems to be returning to normal, but fear that the disease will resurface, exists among residents of the county. Schools remain closed, nonessential staffs working for the government; continue to remain home, while the culture of handshake, hugging and all forms of bodily contact is still prohibited.

At the crossing point, which connects Lofa and Bong counties, travelers are compelled by security officers to get of vehicles, wash their hands and undergo temperature screening. Those with high temperature levels are prevented from entering the Lofa County and refer to the local health authority for additional medical checks.

In Voinjama, the provincial capital of the county, posters of Ebola awareness messages are prevalent. Community radio stations still boom with anti-Ebola songs and messages. This, they say, is to remind residents that Ebola epidemic is not over yet. Many, including non-government agencies believe the disease spread because people did not believe in the existence of the virus.

“No one could listen when it was announced that Ebola is in town,” said Isaac Ballah, a local NGO worker in Voinjama City. Ballah told FrontPage Africa that nearly everyone in the city came to terms with the disease when a man showing signs and symptoms of the virus was seen lying at the entrance of the Lofa County Community college.

Ballah narrates that the suspected Ebola patient was lying helpless, vomiting and openly defecating as locals went to take a glimpse at the first apparent case, which signaled the coming of dark days. “After that morning, we all went home silently, with so much worried. The next day everyone picked up their clorax bottles and we stopped shaking hands and touching each other,” he said. “Few weeks later you could only hear the sound of ambulances everywhere and at the same time, see two to three pickups filled with dead bodies.”

All this epitomized the agony the people of the county were subjected to for months said Ballah. But for several weeks now, not many cases relating to the Ebola virus have been reported in the county. But residents are still taking safety seriously to prevent any widespread occurrence of the disease. They are skeptical in ruling out a new outbreak considering the county’s closeness to neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone with which it shares borders.

Nationwide, the numbers in Ebola cases seems to be declining as has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHOs Bruce Aylward on Wednesday confirmed the decline in the number of Ebola cases in Liberia.

“The actual number of newly reported cases is beginning to decline in Liberia and the government is driving a multi prone investigation, looking at multiple strands of evidence to try and understand, is this real, is this reporting phenomenon or is this care seeking phenomenal that’s changing? So far based on the information received today… it appears that the trend is real in Liberia,” he said.

Despite this good news authorities and citizens of Lofa are taking the good news with a bit of caution. In Voinjama, all general markets remain closed to prevent public gathering. Residents are forced to sell their produce during regular weekdays instead of Fridays, which is recognized as the official market day.

Zangota’s Patient zero

In Zangota, a small town just 45 mins from Voinjama City, where over thirty deaths were reported, the Ebola nightmare began with Krubo Mamaie, who traveled to the town for medication, says 33 year-old Luana Korvah, a mental health supervisor who was actively working with the county’s Ebola task force.

According to Korvah, Mamie had cared for her sick husband in Voinjama who died of Ebola and later left for her town when she also fell ill. She was referred to the Konia Health Center by local officials in Zangota, but died en route to the Foya Ebola Treatment Center because her condition had turned for the worse.

Said Korvah: “She and her husband had burial activities in Guinea, when they went back into the community the husband fell sick.” “She was then caring for the husband and later the man died. They took the man to Letisu for burial and those that took part in the burial ceremony, who did the bathing and all the other traditional things died.”

Korvah said many residents in the area did not believe it was Ebola rather they held the general opinion that their wells were poisoned and thus causing them diarrhea and other illnesses. The residents’ failure to accept the virus existence left nearly 70 persons dead in Zangota and the numbers continued to increase spreading to nearby towns and villages.

Now, after nearly eight months battling the deadly virus, it seems Ebola has taught many lessons in the county. Precautionary measures are the order of the day. Hand washing, no handshake is just a few preventive methods that are still being religiously practiced even though infections have slowed in a County which has lost nearly 200 persons.

Careful barbing

At a local barbing shop in central Voinjama, barbers use hand gloves, bleach and other disinfectant before barbing. Not many people are allowed to sit in the barbing shop to avoid bodily contact. “We are still scared and are doing everything possible to ensure that no one get infected in this shop,” Mohammed Sore, owner of the two brothers barbing shop told FPA.

He says while there has been no case of Ebola reported in the county for the past few weeks, he and his colleagues have not stopped the preventive measures and will continue until the country is declared Ebola free. “We will stop using the gloves and chlorine when we hear that Ebola is not in the country again,” said one of our fears is that we are close to the border and people are still coming in from Guinea,” he said Sow.

At the over 80-bed facility run by the medical charity group Medicines Sans Frontieres in Foya, all patients have been discharged with zero cases reported so far. All schools in the county remain closed as part of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s directive on the prevailing state of emergency in the country.

Non-governmental Organizations such as the Pentecostal Mission Unlimited (PMU Liberia) is moving in to help with preventive materials and support to many health facilities, as residents wait quietly to see a total eradication of the deadly disease. Residents of Lofa have seen hell; Ebola killed and obliterated entire families. Cultural and religious practices helped to rapidly spread the disease among community members who were also in strong denial of the virus according to residents.

Now, the numbers of cases being reported are few and no much news of suspected deaths in Lofa County. Hand washing buckets are still placed in nearly every household and those that cannot afford the bucket travel with a bottle of chlorine water just for protection against the deadly virus, which has killed a total of 2413 persons and infected 6535 individuals in Liberia alone.

November 5, 2014

RIP Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino: The Public Health Mayor

This week Boston laid to rest it’s longest serving mayor, Thomas Menino.  He served as mayor in Boston for 20 years.  Yes. That’s right.  Twenty years.

To his admirers he was known as the “Urban Mechanic,” as the Boston Globe describes, ”leaving to others the lofty rhetoric of Boston as the Athens of America, he took a decidedly ground-level view of the city on a hill, earning himself a nickname for his intense focus on the nuts and bolts of everyday life.” To some of his detractors (and even his supporters) he was referred to as “Mumbles,” for his less than soaring rhetorical skills.

This humble man from the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston rose to national prominence, with former President Bill Clinton paying his respects before the funeral procession and Vice President Joe Biden attending the ceremony. Impressive for a politician recognized to have no political ambition beyond running his city.

What does this have to do with homeland security? For some time I’ve heard from various colleagues that preparedness, particularly health-related preparedness, had an unusual amount of political support in Boston. Public health and EMS were not simply the minor leagues to law enforcement and fire service major league players. But it became vivid when I read the following description from a food-orientated homage to Mayor Menino from The Atlantic food critic Corby Kummer:

But aside from the coddling and special treatment any mayor who shows up gets, Menino cared about food for exactly the reasons today’s food-movement activists do, and long before it was fashionable to embrace what food can and should mean: access to fresh produce for everyone of every income level; gardens as ways to unite and repair communities; and, most importantly, fresh food as a route to better health. The mayor told everyone, including his biographer, longtime Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty, that he wanted to be remembered as “the public-health mayor.” That made him work particularly closely with my spouse, John Auerbach, who served 10 years as Boston’s health commissioner. 

So….apparently I missed this self-appointment.  After the fact it was easy to find further evidence of Menino’s interest in public health.  See the videos I’ve posted below.

Again, how is this related to homeland security? Two points that at least I think of are interest. 

 

A lot, if not the majority, of public health work does not seem to fall into the category of homeland security. Expanding access to fresh produce in low income communities, anti-smoking efforts, childhood vaccination campaigns, etc.  It’s not always about responding to the next Ebola outbreak.  Yet when taken as a whole, improving the health of the community in general improves overall resilience.  Healthy people fare better during and following disasters than unhealthy ones.  People with access to health insurance are more likely to visit a primary care doctor than the emergency room for common maladies, thereby not taking up vital resources during events like the Boston Marathon bombing. A healthier community is a more resilient community.

Menino’s attention to public health underscores the importance of political leaders in homeland security. I have often heard professionals complain about meddling politicians (along with the annoying press) and how events can be run more smoothly when they are absent.  Yet not only do they play an important role in communicating with the public during and following disasters, they make or influence the choices made in a community before there is a bad day.  Menino’s focus on public health not only improved the overall health of Bostonians, but contributed to the competence exhibited during the response to the Marathon bombing, from the existence of a Medical Intelligence Center to the cooperation between city agencies such as Boston EMS and Public Health with the private hospital systems.

It is comparing apples and oranges, but in thinking about this I could not help but contrast Boston’s situation with that of New York City.  Size and resource issues aside, NYC has spent the most energy on security instead of general preparedness since 9/11.  I am not arguing that there has not been a lot of resources directed towards preparedness and response activities and organizations, only that it is lacking when compared with the radical changes enacted in the NYPD and other agencies charged with preventing a terrorist attack. I think I could make the case that Boston, under Menino’s leadership, took a more all hazards approach while NYC, under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, remained primarily focused on terrorism. That is not a value judgement, but simply an observation.

If you are interested, the following video highlights many of Mayor Menino’s accomplishments in public health.  From the Boston Public Health Commission (which Menino created in 1996):

 

If you have a little more time, here is a longer discussion held at Harvard’s School of Public Health with Menino shortly after he left the Mayor’s office.  For those more security minded, at the beginning of the discussion he is asked and replies with a lengthy description of his point of view about the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing.

 

 

 

November 1, 2014

Ebola source sitrep 3

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 1, 2014

The World Health Organization released a new data summary late on October 29.  A few highlights:

The growth rate of transmission in West Africa seems to have slowed, especially in hardest hit Liberia.  This has surprised most close observers who suggest it is either the result of unrecognized and under reported transmissions or is a temporary trough in what can be a wave-like pattern on the part of the virus.

The region’s anti-Ebola capacity is much stronger now than at the beginning of October.  Several new diagnostic labs and treatment facilities are now in place (see map below).  Clinical personnel are more numerous and better equipped. Some have suggested the reduced transmission rate is the outcome of interventions — educational, clinical, and logistical — put in place over September and October.

Ebola Treatmentt

Despite this good news — or pause in worse news — a new scientific analysis published on Thursday concludes, “Under status quo intervention, our projections indicate that the Ebola outbreak will continue to spread, generating a predicted 224 (95% CI: 134 – 358) cases daily in Liberia alone by December…”  For the week ending October 25 fewer than 50 probable cases were reported in Liberia.

The key factor may be “status quo intervention”; how much effort, targeted where, will have the most effect?  It is widely recognized that the West African outbreak is the result of a failure to intervene early and effectively, before the virus was able to spread in dense urban environments.  The best evidence for this analysis being what has happened with an unrelated, but parallel, cluster of Ebola cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The first Ebola death in the DRC was on August 11.  The role of Ebola was identified before the end of August.  Aggressive public health measures were taken to isolate and treat those with the virus.  (Other factors probably helped.)  There have been a total of sixty-six cases and forty-nine deaths.  It has now been eighteen days since the last new case was identified.  The transmission cycle was contained and has apparently been stopped.

Public education and community involvement are, many emphasize, fundamental to this sort of success.  The same analysis projecting potential exponential growth in the number of West African Ebola victims found that four behavioral adjustments could produce a rapid decline in transmission (see chart below).  Of particular importance is a change in burial practices.  The “status quo” being studied was the situation in mid-September. Several of the practices have been increasingly adopted since.  Already enough to produce the recent declines?

Ebola 4 Interventions

Since the West African Ebola cases first emerged, many at HLSWatch have suggested that for the United States this is mostly an opportunity to “run the traps” for a much more easily transmitted, much less treatable infectious disease.  Important issues have surfaced related to early identification and treatment, clinical protocols, clinical training, and quarantine policy, strategy, and practice.

Some potentially less obvious lessons:

Isolation matters:  The economic isolation of eastern Guinea produced a level of poverty that resulted in hunting bats for food.  When a child and then his family members died of bat-borne Ebola they did not receive medical attention. The virus was given time to multiply.  In urban Monrovia the poverty-stricken West Point slum has been the epicenter of transmission.  The population’s lack of connectedness with wider society has impeded the application of effective public health strategies.

Culture matters:  Washing, caressing and otherwise honoring the body of dead family members has been a particularly virulent vector for transmission of the disease.  Working respectfully within the culture it has been possible — with remarkable speed — to adjust cultural behaviors.

Community matters:  Connecting those who were disconnected and building trust where there was little or none has been a precondition to adjusting population behaviors and bending the transmission curve.  Facilitating and supporting community self-organization has again and again been a big part of the public health approach.

Media matters:  Mass media and social media can significantly influence the velocity of public attitudes for both good and bad.   How to influence the velocity of media attention is, I suggest, quite similar to how we effectively engage the virus itself.  Think about it.

Reasoning matters:  Chris’ Tuesday post – and Haidt’s claim — have clearly been on my mind all week.  For what it’s worth, I perceive Haidt was mostly critiquing a tendency by some to perceive reason as self-evident and to dismiss those too stupid to recognize the obvious.  In this regard I agree with Bellavita and Haidt.  The noun can be pretentious.  But the verb — reasoning — when undertaken in a way that embraces culture, community, and respectful communication is the best tool we’ve got.

Maybe this is an opportunity to run the traps on more than the next infectious disease.

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