With confirmed infections and deaths mounting and growing evidence the coronavirus has been spreading undetected for weeks in the United States, the COVID-19 crisis is at a critical turning point.
To date, messages from public health officials have focused almost exclusively on containing the virus by keeping people who may have been exposed to it overseas from bringing it to the U.S. Now, with at least a third of states reporting confirmed cases, the window for containment is essentially closed. In the coming days, travel restrictions, quarantines, contact tracing and similar measures to keep others from infecting us will increasingly be replaced by closures of schools, businesses, cultural institutions and non-essential government offices; widespread event cancellations; work-from-home mandates and other strategies designed to keep us from infecting each other.
No one can yet predict how serious a COVID-19 pandemic might become near term. But one thing is certain: the disruptions will be severe and the prevailing view of what’s next will change with every news cycle. Organizations that are just now thinking through the effects on their operations, people and communities will wish they paid attention sooner.
As the crisis continues to unfold, here are five priorities to keep in mind:
Plan for the Worst
Given the extraordinary uncertainty about nearly every aspect of the virus, the time for crisis planning focused on “most likely” scenarios is already past. Concentrate instead on identifying worst-case scenarios, setting up dedicated teams and comprehensive contingency plans for each and building the psychological and operational resilience needed to manage and survive in an atmosphere of rapid change and instability.
Monitor and Update in Real Time
Review key data and assumptions and reframe the outlook daily, if not more frequently. But be careful. The faster information changes, the more likely we are to overreact to each new detail without first separating fact from speculation or outright fiction. Carefully assess the source and validity of all new information and seek verification, if needed, before communicating or revising plans.
Put People First
Speak first to the families and communities affected by COVID-19 and what the organization is doing to help before addressing potential operational and financial impacts. Step up communications with employees and other stakeholders and encourage them to voice their questions and fears openly. Listening closely and sharing information from reputable sources that responds to their concerns builds trust and also helps tamp down rumors and keep misinformation from spreading.
Give workers at all levels roles to play in the crisis. Research has shown that employees are more likely to come to work and remain focused during a pandemic if three things are true: they believe their families are safe; they feel their employer is being truthful and transparent; and they have a pandemic-related job to do separate from their usual work and feel a sense of responsibility for the well-being of their colleagues and the company.
Speak the Right Language
Persistent reports in recent weeks that the mortality rate from COVID-19 is “approximately 2%,” or possibly “1.4% among patients with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19” and “a wide spectrum of disease severity,” or – hooray! – considerably less than 1% if “one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases,” have led to the widespread perception that otherwise healthy people have nothing to fear from the coronavirus. To the average person, such numbers are meaningless – and dangerously misleading. While the latest estimate of worldwide mortality now stands at 3.4%, it will take time for the public’s perception of danger to catch up with reality.
Effective risk communications must bridge the gap between the highly specific, probabilistic language public health experts use to describe infection risks and the familiar, intuitive, how-does-this-affect-my-family-and-me language the public uses to interpret them. Organizations will have their work cut out for them in the coming weeks ensuring that their communications with customers, employees, investors and other stakeholders are understandable, backed by evidence and neither over-reassure nor over-alarm.