As coronavirus COVID-19 spreads worldwide, hospitals and health care communicators face a challenge of their own: informing employees and the public amid widespread alarm.
The heavy lifting is being done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with federal officials Monday urging the public to visit a Cornavirus.gov URL that links to the CDC website.
However, health care organizations, too, are upping their game as they seek to prevent the spread of misinformation.
“Fear is spreading faster than the virus,” Mary Renouf-Hanson, associate vice president of social and influencer strategy for Providence St. Joseph Health in Renton, Washington, said in a statement. “The best thing we can do is educate people on the virus, the symptoms, the risk factors, what to do to avoid exposure, and what to do if you think you’ve been exposed.”
With the spread of #COVID19 (#coronavirus) within the U.S., our health system is working with @CDCgov, state, and local health authorities, to care for affected individuals and limit spread within our communities. Watch for updates and visit our website at https://t.co/MCs69tM6ss pic.twitter.com/FPAQzQYPUZ
— Providence St. Joseph Health (@providence) March 1, 2020
“The most important thing we are expressing is for our employees—and patients—not to overreact to the coronavirus, and to get their information from a reliable source (CDC),” says Mark Hendrickson, director of public relations and strategic communications at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. “I think in situations like this, the media plays a part in heightening awareness but also causing some of the panic.”
Risk mainly to the elderly and immune-compromised
In a Monday briefing that included President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, members of a White House coronavirus task force noted that the primary risk is to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, such as those in chemotherapy.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams said worldwide data reveals that those at greatest risk are over age 60 or have compromised immune systems. The average age of death is 80.
“If you are a child or young adult, you you’re more likely to die from the flu, if you get it, than you are to die from coronavirus,” Adams said. “So, there’s something about being young that is protective. We want people to be reassured by that.”
Task force members repeatedly urged members of the press to spread a guidance document to help keep the public safe from the virus. The four-part document addresses healthy practices for homes, workplaces, schools and places of business.
“We’re concerned about the elderly,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, a task force member. “We’re concerned about others with preexisting condition, but we’re also concerned about anybody who may be in what we call an immunodeficiency state, having less white cells and less able to combat any virus. We want to protect all of them from the flu, and we want to protect all of them from coronavirus.”
Keep yourself and those around you safe from the Coronavirus: pic.twitter.com/XHz9BWzxq0
— Mike Pence (@Mike_Pence) March 10, 2020
Initial reports suggested a terrifying death rate along the lines of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. Now, many outlets have begun to report that “COVID-19 Isn’t As Deadly As We Think” and its death rate is far lower than previously reported.
To provide reliable information, the World Health Organization has a section dedicated to COVID-19, including FAQs, travel advisories and infection protection measures.
Care for patients with compromised immune systems—such those in chemotherapy—is a daily imperative for providers such as Moffitt.
“As for our patients, we are continuing any precautions that we would normally have in place working with people with compromised immune systems,” says Hendrickson, who is a member of Ragan’s Communications Leadership Council. “Because of our industry and cancer specifically, we already use heightened precautions. Handwashing and staying home if you are feeling under the weather are key.”
Some hospitals are creating online resources, often directing people back to the CDC (which also has a hospital preparedness tool kit). Mayo Clinic has covered the outbreak with numerous articles, and Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston is one of many that have created information pages. Nebraska Medicine has created a Q&A for providers and community members.
“Since Nebraska Medicine and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) handled the treatment of three patients with Ebola in 2014, we have led the world in treatment, training and quarantine methods for highly infectious diseases,” the hospital reports.
Providence St. Joseph has more than 200 branded social media channels pointing people to a single online destination that the organization has been continuously updating as the situation develops. The hospital group also has a partnership with DASH digital radio to provide content from hospital clinicians.
Directing workforce to designated sources
Moffitt is directing employees to two sources for information on COVID-19: the CDC for the latest updates, and the hospital intranet for CDC updates as well as Moffitt-specific information, says Hendrickson. Moffitt also identified two spokespeople (one clinical and one HR) to send all-user emails with information on the virus.
“This way employees have a single source where they know they can trust the information,” Hendrickson says. “Of course, we are working on drafting all messaging in the strategic communications department.”
Using the crisis plan, Moffitt has messaging in place should the hospital need to activate the plan and use other information outlets, such as a hotline and its patient portal.
Providence’s response included several digital tools and channels:
- Emergency Operations Center. Leaders from across the organization coordinate, track and manage internal and external communication efforts across its seven-state region, says Social Strategy Director Caitlin Angeloff. Members confer twice daily via Microsoft Teams.
- Home care monitoring. Providence is working on a workflow in the emergency department that will help determine when to send a patient home versus when to admit them into the ED while ensuring they are safe and monitored, Angeloff says.
- Virtual chatbot symptom checker. In partnership with Microsoft, Providence is working on a virtual chatbot, or conversational artificial intelligence, to walk people through their symptoms online and provide resources and recommendations based on their response, Angeloff says. “This will help people self-screen, which in turn will address volumes coming to our [emergency departments],” she says. “The chatbot is going live in phases now.”
- Express Care Virtual. “We are using Express Care Virtual as a front door for patients to help address volumes coming to our EDs and keep sick people from leaving home and interacting with well people,” Angeloff says. “We are training additional providers on virtual so we can respond to greater needs as different regions use services.”
- New screening criteria. The hospital group has updated the patient screening tool in its electronic health record with new countries the CDC identifies as high risk. “The tool is used in our inpatient and outpatient settings to help identify patients at risk,” Angeloff says. “This tool will be updated per CDC guidance as travel becomes less of an identifying factor.”