Alex Jermeland, 2014 alumni and Management Analyst in Dakota County, MN offers his perspective on COVID 19.
How do you respond to a quickly escalating emergency? The first quote that comes to mind is from Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Jurassic Park (1993), “Hold on to your butts.” And then yell “PLEASE!” at the virus when it tells you that you didn’t say the magic word.
At the time of writing this, we are on Day 5 (March 16, 2020) since the first case was confirmed in Dakota County (Day 1 – Thursday, March 12). During that period, we have four more cases bringing our total to five with our first community transmission. What has happened over these first five days? Well, the NCAA cancelled March Madness (no one will have a busted bracket this year) and multiple states have postponed their presidential primaries. Other than that, lots of meetings. We’ve had a partial activation of our Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) Team. The main task for this team has been to plan for how the county maintains operations to citizens while keeping employees safe. The questions covered during these meetings range from simple to complex:
•How much hand sanitizer do we currently have? How much more can we get from our current vendors?
•What does our toilet paper supply look like? (I’m not going to lie, I don’t fully understand the toilet paper thing. Also, I’m not sure if I ever foresaw a question relating to toilet paper supply as a serious question in a meeting.)
•Can we construct temporary barriers that would provide protection for customer service staff that work at counters and have close contact with citizens?
•Do we have enough technological capacity for a significant portion of our employees to telework? And how do we support this over an extended period of time?
On Day 4 (Sunday, March 15), an emergency COOP Team Meeting was called to discuss items planned for discussion the next day. Why the emergency meeting? The governor called for public school closures starting on Wednesday, March 18; many schools in the Dakota County area were calling off classes beginning Monday, March 16. How many employees will need to stay home with children now that schools have been closed? We needed to provide communication to our supervisors and employees on our response to this announcement.
In five days we have went from Governor Tim Walz declaring that all gatherings over 250 should be cancelled and those under 250, without the ability to keep people a minimum of six feet apart, should also be cancelled to, today (Monday, March 16), President Donald Trump declaring that people should avoid gatherings of 10 people or more. That is five days. The development of the response to this has moved quickly.
The plan for Day 6 (Tuesday, March 17) is a briefing to start the morning with a planning meeting in the afternoon.
All that I am writing is written from my personal perspective, there are many others on the COOP Team that have done things behind the scenes to prepare, plan, and help implement new procedures and policies in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many things, I only see the finished product and will never see all the work that went into preparing, planning, and implementing this response. Through this, I can be thankful for the team approach and seeing the trust in those on the team to carry out their assigned roles. An example of this is that we are working parallel to our Public Health Department, which is focused on community response and provide updates on the changes to the situation from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) while we focus on the continuity of county service perspective. Other examples, within our community, are the cities, hospitals, and other organizations preparing to serve our community.
I don’t know what the upcoming weeks or months will bring as we continue to respond to this developing pandemic. It is my hope that we continue to meet the needs of both employees and citizens during this time of uncertainty. Monitoring and adapting to this situation, as can be seen above, has been a rapidly developing situation. There is potential for our Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to be activated. This is a time to remain calm and patient with, and for, those who are responding to the situation and making decisions.
How did Missouri State prepare me for this situation? One class that immediately comes to mind was my Emergency Preparedness class. This is where I had my first introduction to National Incident Management System (NIMS) training, which I would recommend to everyone. A few of the classes are offered for free through FEMA and provide a great introduction for how emergency response teams operate. Maybe this will encourage you to want to learn more and serve your community, your city may have a volunteer emergency response team that you can join.
Aside from NIMS, we also had an exercise where we activated an EOC simulation in response to a chemical spill from a tanker truck that had tipped over on a set of railroad tracks. There was team in a one room (the Operations Team with the Planning and Logistic Teams) that oversaw and coordinated the event. Then we had the Ground Team reviewing the miniature city set up for the exercise in another room.
What did I learn from this training exercise? I could not see and control everything, I didn’t know the whole situation; I had to trust those who were responding on the ground team to relay information back to the Operations Team and the Ground Team had to trust the Operations Team to relay the information to the Planning Team or Logistics Team depending on the need. When an event like this is activated there is a lot of trust needed between the teams to know that each team will carry out their assigned task and assist other teams with their needs. From this exercise, I learned that it is helpful to everyone to remain calm and patient and not let the situation dictate your emotions. And as I stated above, I am utilizing what I learned from that one exercise and took that into the field with me in response to COVID-19. Trust, calm and patience in response to an emergency situation.
As with Samuel L. Jackson, we can make an educated guess with what will happen but sometimes you just have to say “Hold onto your butts” and flip the switch trusting that everything you have learned will help carry you through this situation.
Even as I finish this, I know that the information is old (welcome to Day 6, Tuesday, March 17). I’ve found rest in Psalm 91 and Luke 21 over this time. We do not know what is ahead but, in that, we do not need to be driven by fear.