HHS includes online services in pandemic communication drill

Mar 19, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently held a tabletop exercise to assess how it could best work with the news media—including blogs and other online-only information sources—to get status updates and vital health information to the American people during an influenza pandemic.

The session was held on Mar 17 at HHS headquarters in Washington, DC. Representatives from online avian-flu information services such as Avian Flu Diary, FluTrackers, FluWiki, WebMD, and CIDRAP News participated in the exercise along with those from several national media organizations, including ABC News, National Public Radio, and Reuters.

The exercise was the second time HHS has reached out to blogs. In May 2007, the department featured posts from bloggers such as Michael Coston of Avian Flu Diary and Greg Dworkin, MD, of FluWiki in a 5-week pandemic preparedness blog series. HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt hosts his own blog on the HHS Web site. He is the first cabinet secretary to use the online forum, according to HHS.

Bloggers were also included in a 1-day leadership conference that HHS hosted to engage community leaders in talking about local preparedness efforts and seek input on how to tailor HHS's own resource materials.

"We recognize that during a pandemic information could be life-saving. As more and more people turn to the Internet for information and news, blogs have emerged as an important and influential communications tool," HHS said in its invitation to attend the tabletop exercise.

Federal officials at the table included HHS Secretary Leavitt and representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and the Coast Guard.

Representatives from state health departments and healthcare facilities also took part in the exercise, because they will also be fielding questions from the media and online sources throughout an influenza pandemic, and especially at the beginning.

Details about the pandemic exercise were off the record, but the scenario featured intensified activity overseas that prompted the World Health Organization to raise its pandemic alert stage. The situation then progressed to one suspected H5N1 case in the United States, which led to dozens of cases in major cities on both coasts.

At several points during the exercise, moderator Forrest Sawyer, a former news anchor with ABC and NBC who now runs his own media production and strategy company, Freefall Productions, asked the news media and online outlets to predict what their headlines would be and what information they would need from HHS, CDC, and other agencies.

During the exercise the communications officials from HHS floated the idea of "embedding" some of their staff in media organizations to ease access to official information during a pandemic. The agency also said its media access policies now treat reputable blogs and other reputable online services the same as traditional media organizations.

Stephanie Marshall, director of pandemic communications at HHS, told CIDRAP News that because growing numbers of people are going to online sources for news and information, "It's important for the government to understand how best to work with bloggers and other online journalists to distribute information. The exercise and the insights offered by the participating bloggers will help us improve and refine our existing pandemic communications plan."

See also:

May 22, 2007, CIDRAP News story "HHS launches blog on pandemic preparedness"

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