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Providers manage crisis communications during COVID-19 pandemic

The day after an error involving the temperature of COVID-19 vaccines that required patients in five Northeast Ohio nursing homes to be revaccinated, Walgreens reached out to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine about the oversight and issued a statement to the press.

The company admitted that the vaccine vials “were subject to improper storage” before being sent to the nursing homes for vaccinations and said it was looking into its procedures.

That news came in early February when the country focused on immunizing older Americans, who are most at risk of severe cases of COVID-19, and more contagious coronavirus variants took hold and vaccine shortages slowed the immunization efforts. Walgreens did not directly respond to Modern Healthcare questions about how it handles criticism or problems.

“In any large-scale vaccination program, depending on people, there sometimes is human error,” DeWine said during his daily press conference on Feb. 2.

Healthcare providers across the country have faced the challenge of handling human errors during a global pandemic this past year. They also had to react to quickly changing circumstances, from mask guidance to personal protective equipment standards for employees to safety regulations.

During a pandemic, everything is crisis communications, said Ronn Torossian, founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, which specializes in crisis communications.

“When it comes to COVID issues, it’s the only thing that matters right now. You’re in a constant state of crisis,” Torossian said.

The most important things to remember when it comes to crisis public relations are clarity and timing, Torossian said.

“It’s okay to make mistakes. Own up to them. Do everything you can to improve them,” he said. “Nothing is going to be perfect. When you’re truly living in unprecedented times, people will be people, and mistakes will be made.”

Chris Berger, vice president of enterprise communications for Atrium Health, a Charlotte-based health system, said the pandemic has made the system “faster to react to anything that comes up.”

“Things are going to happen, and we recognize that. We just have to quickly react and make sure we’re addressing exactly what communities are looking for,” Berger said.

In a system with 70,000 employees, sometimes that can mean a patient reports a worker incorrectly wearing PPE. In that case, Atrium thanks the person for reporting the error, explains what it expects of its employees, says it will enforce those standards and addresses the problem with employees.

“We’re going to have things come up because we have so many teammates,” Berger said. “What we have to do is make sure we’re quickly there and watching social media and ready to react to those kinds of things…The worst thing that could happen is a story like that blows up, and then it actually keeps people from coming to get critical care they need.”

Wayne Psek, an assistant professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, said systems need to get out ahead of a problem.

“You want to be very early with your messaging. You would want to preempt any negative comments or negative reports that are coming out the minute you know this is an issue,” Psek said.

After publicly apologizing, systems also need to keep repeating how they are addressing the problem moving forward, Psek said.

“Often, the idea is, let’s brush it under the carpet, and let it go,” he said. “You can come back to it and say, ‘We made a mistake, and this is what we are doing to make it better.'”

A lot of communication comes down to trust, trust both internally with employees and trust externally with the public, Psek said. And trust is built through action.

Psek pointed to the public outcry from medical residents and fellows at Stanford University School of Medicine in December when nearly all of them were erroneously left out of front-line worker vaccination plans. Residents and fellows said Stanford had realized the error on a Tuesday but hadn’t corrected it before the end of the week when residents held a protest over the omission. Management eventually apologized, Psek said, but “it just created negative PR.”

Stanford did not respond to a request for comment.

“Something like that does undermine the trust straightaway with management. Even though they did address it and apologized, it’s now incumbent on management to keep showing and proving that they can support that trust,” Psek said. “There’s actually a lot of work that needs to go on from administration and management when those things occur.”


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