1. The Initial Crisis: Who’s in Charge?

Government Unaligned, Providers Overwhelmed, Public in a Panic

Context

Remember February 2020?

At that point the COVID-19 pandemic was largely an event impacting other parts of the world. China, the epicenter of the virus at that time, had implemented strict lockdowns and European countries were beginning their own restrictions to contain the virus. But in the U.S., many of us were still questioning how – or even if – the virus would impact our day-to-day lives.

Our questions were soon answered. By March and April, the virus was spreading rapidly through our country. Many Americans were sent home furloughed or to work remotely. Schools suspended in-person classes. Streets were quiet. Toilet paper aisles were empty. Daily life changed completely.

But the most significant change? Genuine fear of the virus. Doctors had no real treatments to help those who were infected. Medical researchers and public health officials were still learning how the virus spread, and there was conflicting advice from government officials and public health authorities on the steps that should be taken to keep people safe.

By May, the virus had created hot spots in New York, Detroit, Miami and New Orleans. For the first time in our nation’s history, overwhelmed hospitals were having conversations about rationing care because there were simply more sick people than they could treat. Many hospitals suspended elective care to make room for a surge in COVID patients. The public learned what “PPE” stood for – because hospitals didn’t have enough of it. The very real pandemic-induced financial burden and caregiver exhaustion began for all providers.

Key Challenges

In the initial months of the pandemic, healthcare providers faced several core issues that impacted their ability to operate.

The great unknown

In the beginning, there were questions. And very few answers. Would the virus spread throughout the country? Who was most at risk? Were hospitals and doctors’ offices safe places to go for care, or were they overrun with the virus? How long would the pandemic last, and what would be the ultimate toll on the nation? No one really knew.

Conflicting messages

The unknowns were exacerbated by vastly different messages from politicians and medical leaders. At the time, President Trump refused to wear a mask and held large gatherings that became super-spreader events. At the same time, doctors were begging Americans to social distance, wear masks and wash hands regularly. These conflicting messages ultimately led to the politicization of the virus.

No national strategy or protocols

In the early days of the pandemic, many nations around the world put safety and testing protocols in place to contain the virus. But the U.S. federal government opted against national guidelines. The absence of federal guidelines forced governors to create their own protocols, resulting in a 50-piece patchwork of diverse and sometimes conflicting rules. The lack of consistency and the conflicting messages from political leaders (mainly President Trump) and public health officials only added to the public’s fear.

Media

Healthcare providers were operating in a fishbowl. Hospital communications plans revolved around how to inform the public when the first COVID-19 patient arrived. And then the first employee case. And then the first death. Marcom and leadership teams were peppered with questions about how COVID-19 care was being delivered and whether and how providers were keeping people safe. Certainly, there was a level of grace afforded to providers as the media watched their efforts, particularly for organizations that were proactive and forthcoming about the daily situation. Regardless, providers were watched moment by moment, adding stress and work for their teams.

Volumes and revenues plummet

A couple of factors contributed to a decrease in volumes and revenues drying up. Some states required providers to suspend elective procedures to prepare for a pandemic surge. In addition, many patients saw hospitals and doctors’ offices as overrun with the virus and they put off non-emergent care. These factors resulted in U.S. hospitals losing substantial portions – or even the majority – of their revenue in a matter of weeks.

Lessons Learned

Looking back on the early months of the pandemic, key themes emerged that still shape the thinking of healthcare leaders today.

Calm, authentic leadership matters

There’s an old saying, “You can’t lead from behind.” That’s never truer than in times of crisis. The early days of the pandemic amounted to huge tests of leadership for all healthcare organizations. Those that fared the best were led by individuals who recognized the challenge of the moment and their role in sharing calm, responsibly transparent information with their employees and communities on a regular basis.

Strategic communication is more valuable than ever

The pandemic forced provider organizations to change operations and protocols daily. As more was learned about the virus and the CDC updated its guidelines, providers had to alter – sometimes even overhaul –their operations. These changes had to be shared quickly, consistently and be easily understood by the masses. Smart healthcare communicators helped guide their organizations during this time and more than earned a place in development of overall strategy. They also selected and trained the appropriate messengers for the moment – whether a white coat or a beloved executive.

Engaging healthcare workers is paramount

In addition to pushing information out, true engagement of healthcare workers was critical. Employees, physicians and others needed a place for dialogue to ask questions and share ideas – quickly. Additionally, real interaction provided healthcare workers with an outlet to help manage stress. The healthcare workers who did not feel heard by their employers took to social media to question decisions by leaders, causing a cascade of avoidable issues for everyone involved. Connecting with healthcare workers would continue to be important throughout the pandemic – and should be well beyond it.

Recognition of healthcare heroes gives providers boosts they need – and deserve

Never has the value of local healthcare access been more real than in the spring of 2020. Realizing that providers were putting patients first and their own health second, communities around the country celebrated frontline caregivers. That recognition earned healthcare providers trust that they would need to manage the pandemic – and trust they will need now – to encourage vaccinations that will end the pandemic.

About the Author /

jgibbs@jarrardinc.com

Justin Gibbs is a talented public affairs and communications strategist with significant experience helping clients effectively navigate times of great change and challenge to achieve strategic business goals. Gibbs came to Jarrard from the headquarters of FleishmanHillard, where he oversaw public affairs and grassroots campaigns, provided strategic legislative and communication counsel and led advocacy efforts for clients in the healthcare and manufacturing sectors. Prior to entering the private sector, he spent a nearly a decade in politics, serving as a key staff member on Capitol Hill and managing political campaigns on the state and federal levels. Gibbs served Congressman Jason Smith (R-MO) as deputy chief of staff where he led political, legislative and communications strategy. He also led communications efforts for Congressman Rick Crawford (R-AR).