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Day One Highlights: 2024 Preparedness Summit

Mar 25, 2024

On Monday, March 25, the 2024 Preparedness Summit opened in Cleveland, Ohio, with over 2,800 attendees participating in-person and virtually.

Kick Off to the 2024 Preparedness Summit

In welcoming attendees to Cleveland, Mark Adams, Health Commissioner for Lorain County Public Health (OH), voiced a sentiment very much in line with the conference’s theme and that would be echoed throughout the first plenary session—that emergency response highlights the relationships and bonds between agencies. Adams encouraged attendees to take advantage of the face-to-face connections that can be made at conferences like this because, “we all want the same thing—to help others.”

Lori Tremmel Freeman, NACCHO’s CEO, further set the tone for the convening, stating that, “We are on the precipice of great change in public health. The world is watching how the public health and emergency preparedness community has learned from the experiences of the last few years.”

In his opening remarks, Major General (Ret.) Paul Friedrichs, MD, Deputy Assistant to the President, Director of the White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy, shared parallels between the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic. Growing out of frustration over budget cuts and public anger over the health community’s efforts to mitigate the pandemic, our public health predecessors built a world-renown public health system; a legacy with which we have overcome many challenges since. Dr. Friedrichs challenged the audience to think about a question: As a community, how do we acknowledge rightful concerns and align the changes we make, so those in the future look back at us and believe we cared and wanted to improve – just as we look back to the actions of our predecessors from 100 years ago?

Before introducing the day’s plenary session, Laura Biesiadecki, Preparedness Summit Planning Committee Co-Chair and Senior Director of Preparedness at NACCHO, provided an update about a project that began with listening sessions at the 2022 Preparedness Summit. Commissioned on behalf of the conference planning committee, a special supplement to the journal Health Security released in October 2023, codifies the findings of listening sessions and validates the experiences of the public health preparedness practice community in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Click here to learn more and access the supplement’s 14 papers.

Opening Plenary Session

The opening plenary session, A Case Study in Collaboration: Public Health, Healthcare, and Emergency Management Responding to the East Palestine Train Derailment, shared lessons learned from the February 2023 Norfolk Southern freight train derailment and the complex, multi-agency coordination effort that resulted from it.

Session moderator Capt. Jill Shugart, Associate Director for Emergency Management for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opened by sharing a timeline of the incident, its response, the agencies who responded, and the types of supports provided to the community.

In speaking of her federal role, Shugart said, “we don’t just show up—we’re invited in. I commend the local teams for working with us from the start; for briefing us and setting the tone on how to help the local community.”

In his role as Health Commissioner for Columbiana County General Health District, Wesley Vins shared how his staff of 18 mobilized to respond and how their role in this response was different than the front-line role they played in COVID-19 response.

“Our personnel are our greatest asset—we brought experience,” said Vins. “In the context of the Joint Information Center established, our expertise was in residential wells. Ground water sampling was our responsibility and was our lane in this response.”

“One of the most monumental opportunities to learn was that this was an emotional response,” said Vins. “In the end, we really worked for the public and for the public, this response was emotional. Always remember the emotional piece, the behavioral health aspects, and the role that stress and stigma play.”

Vins also highlighted the importance of trust within a community, the value of partnership among the responding agencies, and the importance of the public information officer role. He encouraged attendees to stay up to date with training and planning, and to exercise those plans.

Dr. Gretchen Nickell, Columbiana County Medical Director and East Liverpool City Hospital Chief Medical Officer, Columbiana County and East Liverpool City Hospital, explained that the area impacted is medically underserved and how access to care became an issue. Expertise in specialty medicine and teams from multiple hospitals came together to help coordinate care for primary care and specialty medicine the same day or the next.

“Medical misinformation and mistrust were our biggest challenges,” said Nickell. “This was not an area I had significant expertise in. Physicians having access to webinars, information sheets, and hotlines from partners were extremely helpful for real-time responsiveness to patients.”

Nickell emphasized the role of communications, noting that community hospitals are part of the community. She encouraged hospitals to maintain relationships with their local health departments, other hospitals, and providers.

“When you need to rely on each other quickly, having that communications in place is key,” said Nickell.

Dr. Hannah Hays, Medical Director of the Central OH Poison Center, discussed how the Center set up a poison control phone line specifically for East Palestine. She also underscored the importance of local partnerships aligning with Poison Centers during a hazardous materials crisis.

“At the Poison Center, one thing I’ve learned is that relationships need to be built ahead of time,” said Hays. “Having things in place before a crisis begins makes it that much easier to rely on your plans.”

Hays shared that lessons learned from the East Palestine response were quickly applied when, less than two months after the train derailment, there was another disaster in Indiana.

“Because of our experience working with you all, we were able to act much quicker,” said Hays. “We adapted the same processes that we went through in East Palestine to a new situation.”

As the panel discussion drew to a close, Hays issued a call to action saying, “there are 55 Regional Poison Centers across the country. Please consider incorporating us into your disaster plans.”

Shugart also left attendees with homework and important reminders.

Sharing Session with Dr. Paul Friedrichs

Over lunch, Dr. Paul Friedrichs, inaugural Director of the White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy (OPPR), joined attendees to discuss how OPPR can integrate the perspectives of state and local public health leaders into national pandemic preparedness efforts. He opened by sharing that his office’s goal is to integrate and synchronize response across agencies and partners, and to develop relationships with partners.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink how we share information and coordinate,” said Friedrichs. “I recognize that this is a team sport and I’m eager to hear your thoughts on that.”

A theme echoed throughout the conversation was a need for consistent and clear messaging, to the public and to Congress.

He also emphasized the need for written After Action Reports from pandemic response and encouraged attendees to share their reports with his office.

“There was incredible innovation over the past four years,” said Friedrichs. “We’ve shown that we have the ability to do extraordinary things when we work together. We now have an opportunity to take a different approach to public health informed by the lessons from the pandemic, both good and bad.”

Additional Highlights from Day One

In addition to these keynote sessions, day one of the Preparedness Summit included over 60 demonstrations, learning sessions, partnership case studies, and workshops. The Exhibit Hall also opened with over 80 exhibitors showcasing services and products for public health and emergency preparedness professionals.

The day concluded with attendees networking and connecting during a reception in the Exhibit Hall.

Click here to see photos from the day.

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