9/11, Anthrax, and Life in Public Health: Part 3

The following is the last in a three-part guest post series by Scott
J. Becker, MS, Executive Director, APHL. This post can also be found
on the APHL blog
here
.

Thank you again to everyone at APHL and especially Mr. Scott Becker.

During this period, APHL experienced a surge in media interest, as it
quickly became apparent which labs were doing the anthrax testing. We
went from maybe three media calls per year to up to 60 per day. I
made the decision that APHL should not shy away from media attention,
instead we should let the media tell our story. But I knew that we
couldn’t keep up this pace so I asked the board to approve a one time
deficit spending of up to $30,000 for crisis communications support.
How did I arrive at that figure? It seemed like a number that would
fly – and it least it was a place to start. Following board approval,
I contacted the only director of communications I knew, Jody DeVoll
(then with AMCHP) for advice. She stayed on the phone with me for
over an hour, coaching me on the nuances of media and ended by saying
“you need Jill Merrick, and you need an intern just to handle the
incoming calls.” Jody is Angel #1. Jill Merrick is a communicator
extraordinaire. She was my godsend back then, and now I consider her
a good friend. Jill called me to say, “Jody called me and told me
your situation, how can I help?” Jill was in our office the next day,
and our own media induced chaos became more manageable, and most
importantly it became more strategic. Jill is Angel #2. I gave one
interview on WCBS News radio in New York City about the use of anthrax
home test kids that were being sold on the internet (I said that it
was a bad idea). Nancy Kaufman, an executive at the Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation heard the interview and called to ask if there was
something they could do. “For sure, “I replied, “we need funds to
help pay for crisis communications support.” Nancy is my third angel.
Within days, I had a grant to cover our communications needs, but
with one caveat. We were told that we must produce a communications
plan for the association but the added commentary was “we don’t think
that you can really do much with it, after all it’s only labs you deal
with.” To me, those were fighting words. Not only did we create
that plan, but we proved them wrong, very wrong. About a year after
the anthrax attacks and subsequent media maelstrom, APHL hired its
first director of strategic communications – Jody DeVoll, also known
as Angel #1. Jody now heads up a four person strategic communications
team. The public health lab system rose to the occasion that fall,
testing over 125,000 samples for anthrax contamination.

The fall and winter of 2001 ended for me with a much needed two week
vacation. On December 26, 2001 USA Today ran a multi-page story about
labs and anthrax, complete with a quarter page photo of Kati Kelley,
the Connecticut state laboratory director (and one of my public health
heroes).

Shortly after the new year, my daughter Sophie began to utter her
first few words. They were “dada,” “mama,” and “antrax.” It was at
that moment that I realized what toll these events took on me, having
been absent so much of Sophie’s first year. Someday Sophie and her
younger sister Ali may read these words and realize how important it
is for me to serve the public’s health through APHL, and how my small
role and bearing witness helped shape me as a parent and as a
professional.

Through planning, long days and nights, excellent science (some
admittedly “on the fly”), and the dedication of some of the most
committed public servants in America, we made it through that dark
fall and winter stronger because of the experience. The experiences
of 2001 helped us better serve the public through other health threats
in the past ten years – West Nile Virus, SARS, monkeypox, Hurricane
Katrina, 2009 H1N1 Influenza pandemic, and the Deepwater Horizon (Gulf
Coast Oil Spill) accident.

The unsung heroes of public health, laboratorians, hold my greatest respect.

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9 thoughts on “9/11, Anthrax, and Life in Public Health: Part 3

  1. A great series and very timely. Tomorrow a think tank will be issuing a report on the GRADE of UNCLE SAM for biological threats. Last time they gave US Executive Branch an F! This will be a very very detailed report. Should make the MSM given the recent popularity of movie “Contagion”! That movie endorsed by CDC!

  2. I wonder if the author feels that the Anthrax attacks prepared us for SARS which, in turn, prepared us for H1N1. A lot of my colleagues (epidemiologists) feel this way. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I came along to epidemiology in 2003, missing Amerithrax and just at the tail end of SARS.

  3. I feel very strongly that we as a national public health lab system are most definately stronger as a result of lessons learned from anthrax. We used those lessons for SARS (and it didnt hurt that CDC got an accurate diagnostic out to our community in record time), and then again for H1N1. I think most epis would agree that together, our surveillance systems have been strengthened but are at risk of unravelling due to severe budget cuts and staff shortages. For more on the public health lab story in H1N1, please see our new publication – “Lessons from a Virus”, here: http://artfulpresentation.com/lessonsVirus_interactive.pdfScott Becker

  4. Thank you for the response.What impact, if any, do you see from the “old guard” in public health? Those that don’t believe in communicating through the internet, shun any attempts to use Facebook to track cases or notify contacts, and whose online message is only: “Go see your doctor, don’t believe anything on the internet.”There are plenty of those folks in important leadership positions, and I feel they are impairing the funding and use of these developing technologies (web 2.0, smartphones, home computing, videogames) to improve public health.I ask this because, for some time in early 2009, people in Mexico were communicating on the web that they were seeing a higher-than-usual number of people sick with flu-like illness. Some of these reporters were professionals in health care, others were just regular people on the street. But I’m wondering if we in public health in general and epidemiologists in particular should have been listening closer.Your thoughts?

  5. WOW!  Complicated issue because you can lead a horse to water but cannot make them drink. I would get into a discussion with my friend Jeannette Sutton,  PhD in sociology that wrote her thesis on WEB 2.0 and EM!  Copied her on this response.She also is fan of your blog.Regards Bill

  6. WOW!  Complicated issue because you can lead a horse to water but cannot make them drink. I would get into a discussion with my friend Jeannette Sutton,  PhD in sociology that wrote her thesis on WEB 2.0 and EM!  Copied her on this response.She also is fan of your blog.Regards Bill

  7. I think that those folks are going to be fewer and fewer, and their voices will get weaker and weaker! Really, I’m not kidding. I think that the methods that were used and are tried and true are excellent, but may not still work in every situation. I think that the public is a much more astute “purchaser” (yes, even of public health services that they don’t necessarily know they are “buying”) of services — we now live in a world where anyone can comment on anything….which is challenging to those of us in government who arent used to be questioned by the public. I believe that we in public health can effectively use new media to help the public “get” public health. Yes we have to deal with HIIPA, CLIA, etc. but electronic health records are going to provide more access to data than ever before. We have to think forward 5 or 10 years and think, what could we be doing now to prepare ourselves and our agencies for that eventuality. The old guard is smart and will find ways to engage.

  8. <tr><td>I’m sorry for this odd request because it might get to you too urgent but it’s because of the situation of things right now.. I am presently stuck in Spain right now. I came here on vacation and Unfortunately we got Robbed at the park of the hotel where we stayed. All cash and credit cards were stolen. Glad we still have our passports with us!!! We’ve been to the embassy and the Police here but they’re not helping issues at all and our flight leaves in less than 6hrs from now but we’re having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won’t let us leave until we settle the bills. I need a quick loan from you to settle our bills and i will be very very glad to pay back…You have my word. William </td></tr>

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