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What writers write when they 1) aren't writing, 2) are avoiding writing or 3) need a word count to convince their spouses they are writing.

Origami n' Stuff 4 Kids

Sunday, December 6, 2009

DOH! The Hawaii Department of Health's Public Relations Fiasco

Glass sculpture of the H1N1 virus, by installation artist Luke Jerram.

In a world where viruses exchange genes more readily than Tiger Woods exchanges mistresses, is it any wonder there's so much confusion over swine flu?

Although reports indicate the U.S. outbreak may have already peaked, with Wisconsin (6222 cases), Texas (5151 cases) and Illinois (3404 cases) recording the most infections, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano advises we not get too smug— a second wave of influenza may be imminent. And despite an increase in the production and availability of vaccine, most Americans remain leary of anything the Feds can squeeze into a syringe.  Nevermind the sweaty guy coughing in the airline seat next to you, with his eyeballs rolling back into his head— it's become patriotic to be paranoid.

Face it, folks– while much ado was made about Napolitano, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the pork industry insisting the virus be referred to by its scientific name, H1N1 (Lipstick on a pig! Political correctness!), a pandemic is still a pandemic. In this pressurized cabin we call Earth, we're all breathing recycled air. Think of vaccination as the oxygen mask we don before helping our fellow passengers.

So, how did the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH!) screw up? First off, let me say that the DOH is filled with hard-working professionals dedicated to protecting and improving the "health and environment for all people in Hawai'i," and certain circumstances, like the shortage of H1N1 vaccine, is beyond their control.

However, as with FEMA, the Civil Defense or any other government agency involved in disaster management, we rightfully expect the DOH to inform and guide us. When President Obama declared H1N1 a national emergency, there should have been protocols in place. Releasing public service announcements without establishing an adequate supply and distribution, nor the capacity to track the distribution and administration of vaccine only compounded the public's frustration and confusion.

With CDC guidelines clearly stating priority should be given to "pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age, healthcare and emergency medical services personnel, persons between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old, and people ages of 25 through 64 years of age who are at higher risk for 2009 H1N1 because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems," how could the DOH justify giving 7,174 state workers priority status for H1N1 vaccination, putting them ahead of the CDC's target populations?

These workers were identified as critical personnel:

"Positions (which have) to do with continuity of operations of government," (Civil Defense spokesman Ray) Lovell said. "You don't want a whole department to shut down because you lost key people, out with the flu."

The list includes critical workers for everything from the taxation department to the health department's clean water branch to the transportation department.

Eloise Aguiar, Advertiser Staff Writer

Great. I feel much better knowing that my good friend, who has muscular dystropy yet can't obtain vaccination, can still be taxed if he falls ill. Indeed, first-responders and emergency workers, and even employees critical to our infrastructure such as waste management workers and such, should be vaccinated. But the taxation department?

Granted, the program to give priority to state workers has been temporarily suspended in response to the public uproar, but it's too little, too late. Part the DOH's responsibility is to calm the population and avoid this kind of public relations disaster when we need them most. And they can't blame this mess on state furloughs— that's becoming a tired excuse— nor can they blame it, as one Honolulu Advertiser commentator noted, on the failure of private doctors to comply with paperwork, not when healthcare workers not employed by the state still go unvaccinated.

Step up to the plate, DOH, and learn from this experience. I applaud you for your good work and intentions, but get it straight now, before you face more serious challenges like SARS and H5N1 (Avian Influenza).

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