Pandemic Perspectives: Building Trust to Break Down Barriers

October 14th, 2021 | Viewpoint

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At the pandemic’s height in 2020, Amy Cullum, JSI consultant and NH Investigation Branch Director could look up from her desk and see her colleagues in the room, but the best— and safest—view of them was on the computer screen. 

Cullum and many of JSI’s pandemic response team worked together-apart for months in New Hampshire’s command center. They met on Zoom masked and safely distanced as they conducted case and contact investigations, worked to contain outbreaks in schools and businesses, and collected and analyzed surveillance data to track the course of the pandemic. There were hundreds in the cavernous space sitting at individual desks while planning, communicating, and collaborating through the virtual safety of separate computers.

As early days turned into weeks and then months, the magnitude of the pandemic became apparent. It’s twists and turns required constant adaptation as more was learned about the virus and the disease it caused rapidly spread around the globe.

Despite the virus’ novelty, it was in some ways familiar: many in that room had spent years preparing for something like the spread of SARS CoV-2. In fact, some plans had their origins in the anthrax scare after the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago. 

Many people at the center worked with health care leaders, emergency personnel, and community members going over possible scenarios and looking for gaps and developing plans to fill them.

This is one of the ways JSI has been involved in preparing for public health emergencies: a pilot project with the CDC to develop scenarios for jurisdictional risk assessments, with the goal of ensuring response plans are up-to-date. 

As Cullum anticipated, those plans turned out to be vital in guiding the COVID-19 response. But the actual planning was just as important, if not more so. The process convened a wide array of people, who, in working through the scenarios, built relationships that made it easy to collaborate to meet diverse communities’ pandemic needs.

Those working relationships made a difference in initiatives such as the vaccine rollout. Once the vaccine was available, New Hampshire, like other states, set up large vaccination centers. But many who needed it most, such as the elderly and people who were  homebound due to medical conditions, wouldn’t or couldn’t come to those centers. They were identified through a network of public health staff, police, firefighters, home care providers, and human service organizations who worked together on emergency planning scenarios before anyone had heard of COVID-19. 

“We have recognized the need to promote these sorts of partnerships, but COVID really showed why they’re so important,” says Cullum. “There are things we couldn’t have done, at least not as quickly or efficiently, without those connections.”

The challenge and opportunity for the future is to find ways to build on the partnerships formed and strengthened during the pandemic response, Cullum says. This includes making better use of the health care system and strengthening connections with home and long-term care providers. As Cullum concludes, 

We have to be able to reach out to and rely on each other. Every time I asked for help, it empowered other people. Every time you bring people up, you’re building that trust. And it’s amazing what people will do.”

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