183: COVID-19 Fast Track

Gaafar Uherbelau, the Minister of Health in Palau, discusses the COVID-19 pandemic making landfall last December; Angela Minicuci, former Communications Director for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, reflects on lessons learned...

Gaafar Uherbelau, the Minister of Health in Palau, discusses the COVID-19 pandemic making landfall last December; Angela Minicuci, former Communications Director for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, reflects on lessons learned from the contaminated water supplies in Flint, Michigan, and their application today; and one last reminder to register for the ASTHO Public Health TechXpo to still watch all the discussions on demand.

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This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Friday, May 20th, 2022. I'm Robert Johnson.

Now, today's news from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.


Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has been wreaking havoc for more than two years. But in Palau, an island paradise in the Pacific Ocean, the virus has had a shorter run, making landfall last December.

Palau's health minister is Gaafar Uherbelau.


Part of the difficulty with that is that we essentially went through what everybody else went through over a course of two years in a span of, let's say two weeks, I think two to three weeks, where all of those things happened within that timeframe.

So, a lot of emotions, a lot of anxiety and fear. But again, you know, due to our community being very willing to come in and vaccinate and pretty much comply with whatever guidance, whatever recommendations we put out there, really helped us get over those milestones in a matter of three weeks.

And so, while we are lucky that we hadn't experienced it for almost two years, that was a downside, is that we had to go through it in a matter of three weeks as opposed to two years like other places.


Most of the country's 20,000 or so residents have been vaccinated, but Uherbelau isn't resting. He knows his team still has a lot of work to do.


You know, I think like many other places the challenge now is trying to keep a balance between maintaining an effective and proactive and robust response to the pandemic and whatever developments it may present; but at the same time, we want to make sure that we don't neglect existing issues, health issues such as non-communicable diseases, which are pretty much the top leading causes of death in Palau—much more than COVID.



Contaminated water in Flint, Michigan created a public health crisis that demanded a thorough and transparent response. Only a few months after the crisis began in 2014, Angela Minicuci took over as communications director for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Recently, we asked her to reflect on lessons learned from the tragedy and their application today. It's our morning conversation.

A few years ago, you were in the trenches handling public health messaging when the Flint water crisis occurred. What lessons did you learn from that process, thinking about it, all those years ago?


I would say the most important thing that I took away from the Flint water crisis from a communications perspective is the importance of working with trusted community partners when you're in the middle of an emergency or a crisis scenario. You need to get information out quickly to people who are scared, who may be, who are dealing with trauma, and to be able to communicate to them in a way that is actionable and allows them to feel comfort and trust in the message that they're receiving.

Your biggest ally in that—it doesn't come down to how widely you push your message out and all the mechanisms you can use; it really comes down to who you're using for getting that message out and community partners are absolutely instrumental in that process.


Too often, departments wait until there is a crisis to go out and find these partners. Were there partners in place already in Flint, or did you have to try and recruit them while the crisis was going on?


I would say it was a bit of both. It was a good learning experience to see where we did not have relationships that we should have. And there were already relationships in place in particular in the public health system—through local health departments, through the hospital, through just community clinic providers there—that we were able to really strongly lean on.

Early on, we were able to identify who our strongest champions were and use them to our ability to help get messaging out. But that isn't the extent—it's not just public health. You need to make sure you have connections with community organizations, nonprofits, local educators, parent groups, and your local government. And those are things that you should be focusing on in a non-emergent time—building those relationships, building that trust—because it is much, much harder to do when you're dealing with a situation that's either rapidly unfolding or is in the heat of a crisis


That crisis went for some time. How much impact did the partners have on the messaging, on the ultimate outcome of this issue as far as reputation is concerned, reputation of the agencies involved?


Well, I would say that, to a certain degree, the state's reputation is still working to recover itself in Flint. There still is mistrust there. Now, it's come away from the levels of mistrust that existed early in the Flint water crisis, but there is still work to be done and things to be learned about how that crisis has impacted and will continue to impact that community. So, community partners were an absolutely essential part of the messaging in Flint because they were the ones who really understood the needs of the community, could articulate that to those that were responding to the crisis and ensure that the right supports were put in place to benefit Flint residents.

JOHNSON: Would it have been tougher for the state to manage that process, to work toward a solution, without those partners?


Absolutely. Absolutely you need to have partners, and the state needed the partners in Flint to be able to respond and support the families there as we were dealing with, you know, changing the water source and making sure that the right health supports were in place for Flint residents.


And if you can do that, build those networks before you need them.


Absolutely. Make sure that you're doing ongoing community outreach when things are not crazy because that will allow you to have a strong footing and an understanding of one another prior to any emergency being in place so that you know who to call quickly, be able to reach them, tap into their network if you need volunteers or if you need communication supports. That is—I truly can't underscore the importance of building those relationships in the off times to benefit a response should a crisis occur.



Finally this morning, we leave you with one last reminder to register for the ASTHO Public Health TechXpo. The event ended last week; but if you sign up, you can still watch all the discussions on demand. There's a link to the Xpo webpage in the show notes.


That'll do it for today's newscast. We're back Monday morning with more ASTHO news and information.

I'm Robert Johnson. You're listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great weekend.

Angela Minicuci APR

Partner, Martin Waymire Public Relations

Gaafar Uherbelau

Minister, Ministry of Health and Human Services, Republic of Palau