Editor's Note: CIDRAP's Public Health Practices online database showcases peer-reviewed practices, including useful tools to help others with their planning. This article is one of a biweekly series exploring the development of these practices. We hope that describing the process and context of these practices enhances pandemic planning.
Feb. 11, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – Strong relationships emerged between public health planners and community organizations during an innovative pandemic influenza education campaign in Ramsey County, Minn.
Planners developed a toolkit to provide community and faith-based organizations with comprehensive pandemic awareness and training. Although the toolkit addresses basic information, local groups proactively solicited and used its guidance to meet their unique needs, said Emily Brennan, health educator for the Saint Paul–Ramsey County Department of Public Health. The sought-after training sessions held to educate community groups about the toolkit also allowed planners to cultivate a growing desire for organizational emergency preparedness.
"It's a way to get the community involved in the work we do—in the planning, in the disaster response. It's a tool. It's a way to create a relationship," Brennan said.
Evolution of the toolkit
The idea for the toolkit began to develop in 2005, Brennan said.
"Groups were requesting information—everything we had—about pandemic preparedness. That was sort of the hook—the worst-case scenario," she said.
Although the health department was already distributing brochures and fliers on avian influenza and pandemic influenza, Brennan said she saw a need for an all-inclusive educational package. When the media featured reports about avian flu, community organizations began requesting all information available from the county. The department was fielding questions from non-profit organizations, district councils, churches, and civic groups.
Compiling disparate materials from various sources was a labor-intensive task, and it wasn't meeting the needs of community leaders, who sometimes felt overwhelmed when suddenly presented with complex and often frightening information, Brennan said.
"I wanted to put everything in one place," Brennan said of the toolkit. "It's a resource for them, to get their arms around something that feels overwhelming. It's a way to put parameters around it."
Planners selected information from numerous sources on pandemic influenza and hired a consulting firm to distill the data into user-friendly slideshows and activities. In 2006, a community review board reviewed the toolkit and approved it for a general audience.
Engaging community organizations
The toolkit is an introduction to pandemic influenza for organizations with little to no background in preparedness. Its diverse components include a "getting started" document, brochures, fact sheets, a PowerPoint presentation with accompanying script, resources for group activities, emergency health information, a community checklist, and tools for evaluating progress.
Groups as diverse as a Catholic parish, a women's shelter, a children's foster care agency, and a rotary club have used the toolkit to educate their staff. Although the toolkit is designed for organizations to be able to present the materials on their own, Brennan has conducted dozens of presentations throughout the past year.
"People used [the toolkit] as a way to look at everything we had, but they did not feel comfortable delivering that presentation at all," she said.
Having someone from the department convey this information is an important component of the presentation. "In Minnesota and in Ramsey County, we're seen as a source of credible information. The public believes it's the role of government to protect them in a disaster, and we're the natural source for education," Brennan said.
At the request of a parish health committee in 2007, Brennan delivered a presentation on preparedness to the staff of Saint John the Evangelist Catholic church in Little Canada, Minn. This presentation spurred church staff to sponsor an event called "Faith Health Sunday," said Kerry Keenan, a member of the parish's health committee and a nursing faculty member at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn. The parish provided the brochures, emergency contact lists, and preparedness information from the toolkit to members of its congregation.
"Many found them helpful, and we felt it was the first step in getting people thinking about emergency planning and where to start," Keenan said.
Protecting vulnerable populations
A pandemic may threaten the core missions of community and faith-based organizations, many of which provide services to some of the most vulnerable community members. Basic education on pandemic preparedness has allowed community organizations to conduct continuity of operations planning, Brennan said.
"It's more of a service issue for vulnerable populations. The fact that the women's shelter has started planning will allow them to serve their clients," even during a pandemic, she said.
The pandemic influenza education and engagement process continues to evolve. After Brennan presented the toolkit to several community organizations, she saw that her audiences were growing dissatisfied with checklists.
"They wanted something more concrete," she said. She has responded by bringing more detailed materials aimed at organizational preparedness, such as brochures on stockpiling and educational presentations for agencies' staff.
Building fruitful relationships
The toolkit brought the health department closer to its goal of strengthening collaborations with community partners, Brennan said.
"It's an entree into a relationship. They see us as a credible source, and we see them as people we can go to. If we have a question about vulnerable children, we can go to them," she said. Relationships with community organizations are particularly important as the county seeks to include community representatives on a pandemic influenza planning committee this year.
"I now have established, through this toolkit, relationships with participating organizations, and now look to them as a planning resource," Brennan said.
View tools and reviewers' comments for the "Ramsey County Community Toolkit: Preparing for an Influenza Pandemic"