Travel and training dollars are in short supply and many local, state, and federal public health agencies are for that reason restricting use of the precious funding they have to participate in only one or two major conferences per year. This year, the Annual Public Health Preparedness Summit was one of those events. Almost 1,500 preparedness professionals from across the country were drawn to Anaheim, California, for the 7th Annual Public Health Preparedness Summit – on 21-24 February 2012.
This year’s conference theme – Regroup, Refocus, Refresh: Sustaining Preparedness in an Economic Crisis – focused on a number of ways the U.S. public health and medical communities are tightening their purse strings while still attempting to build and sustain the efforts to protect the health and welfare of the nation during times of sudden disaster and other major emergencies.
Reality Meets Fiction – And Scores a Decisive Win The conference opened with a plenary panel of representatives from agencies involved in the response to the devastating tornado that smashed into Joplin, Missouri, in the spring of 2011. Panelists emphasized the importance of pre-disaster planning – i.e., bringing the right people together to understand and collaborate on the roles and responsibilities each organization is assigned both during and after a disaster. The advance planning carried out by local and state public health agencies, working together with healthcare systems and community-based organizations, was cited numerous times as the principal reason the response to the tornado not only was so successful but also required little if any federal response.
Although some conference attendees reacted negatively to the absence of a significant federal response presence, other local, state, and federal leaders suggested that the local and state responses provided an excellent example of how the many years of federal preparedness funding that followed the 9/11 attacks had benefited the Joplin community. Building resilience at the local and state level, within faith-based and other community organizations – and with the general public – allowed Joplin to take care of itself and do almost everything necessary to put the fragmented pieces of the community back together again.
Conference attendees also were treated to a timely presentation involving “the big screen.” Scott Z. Burns, screenwriter for the Warner Brothers film Contagion, was joined by not only the film’s leading science consultant but also a number of federal public health and national security leaders to ensure that actual facts were used to provide a firm foundation for the fictional plot used in the making of the movie. Burns shared several humorous anecdotes about how he developed the plot – and why, in his opinion, the film’s message was and is so important to tell to a national audience.
Lillian Shirley, President of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), then moderated a panel of federal leaders – from the White House, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – who provided their own knowledgeable perspectives of the nation’s ability to respond, quickly and effectively, to the outbreak of a highly virulent infectious disease. Afterward, various audience members shared their stories about their own successes (or, in some cases, lack of success) in building community preparedness; many also expressed their concerns about several gaps in preparedness that still exist.
The Future of Public Health: Henderson’s Views The closing session of the Summit featured comments by Dr. Donald A. Henderson – a distinguished scholar at the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center – who served as Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Principal Science Advisor at the HHS Office of the Secretary in the aftermath of 11 September 2001. He provided a retrospective and thought-provoking account of where the field of public health preparedness has been over the past decade. He also eloquently discussed not only various areas where he sees notable accomplishments as well as a number of other areas where he continues to see opportunities for improvement.
Here it is worth noting that Dr. Henderson was principally responsible, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for determining how to best use the huge increase in homeland preparedness funding ever appropriated by Congress. In his Summit comments, he expressed his personal concern that a continued decline in federal preparedness appropriations will undoubtedly diminish, to at least some degree, the advances that have been made over the past 10 years, and would put the country at significant risk for additional terrorist attacks in the not-too-distant future.
In addition to these excellent plenary sessions, the 2012 Summit offered nearly 100 interactive and sharing sessions, workshops, town hall meetings, and other venues for stimulating discussion, sharing research findings, and discovering the new tools and resources now available in public health preparedness. Other highlights included sessions on crisis standards of care, radiation preparedness, decision-making during a crisis, social media technology, points of dispensing methods, and the needs of vulnerable populations.
The next Summit is scheduled for 12-15 March 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. For additional information, visit the Summit website at www.phprep.org.
________________________ Jack Herrmann is Senior Advisor and Chief for Public Health Preparedness with the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). In that role, he oversees the organization’s preparedness portfolio, which is aimed at strengthening the preparedness and response capabilities of local health departments. He also serves as the organization’s chief public health preparedness liaison to local, state, and federal partner agencies, and chairs the annual Public Health Preparedness Summit. He has extensive experience in disaster management and response and has participated in numerous disaster relief operations with the American Red Cross.