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Lack of information on Ebola spreading fear, mistrust

By Keith Morelli
Published: October 17, 2014 Updated: October 17, 2014 at 09:59 PM
Emergency workers use hazmat suits as they work at an eye clinic in Montgomery, Ala. where a woman complaining of ebola-like symptoms caused the facility to be shut down on Friday. Officials believe the health scare will prove to be a false alarm. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

TAMPA — As revelations - and rumors - emerge each day about the potential spread of the deadly Ebola virus, the Florida Department of Health has established a single source for release of information about the disease.

Little of that information is trickling out, though, and some say that’s eroding the public’s confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis.

Two incidents this week in the Tampa Bay area point to how the lack of information is helping fuel fear and rumors:

♦ Residents near the Largo Fire Rescue training facility were dismayed to see emergency workers in protective suits set up a tent near the station on Thursday, but no official explanation was given to the gathering of anxious neighbors who speculated about what was going on.

“I think they have something to hide,” neighbor Sandra Capra told WFLA News Channel 8 on Thursday. “If they didn’t, I think they would tell us if it was a dangerous chemical leak or something like that. They would put everybody’s mind at ease.”

♦ Rumors escalated, including on social media, after visitors at the Brandon Regional Hospital saw health-care providers inside wearing protective suits. The hospital wouldn’t reveal specifics of what was happening other than to say patients with contagious conditions often are treated in isolation by personnel in protective gear.

“We did not have an Ebola patient,” hospital spokeswoman Patricia Montgomery said.

Ebola was not involved in either incident, but the rumor mill fueled a tempest of hysteria.

Hillsborough County Health Department and some hospital officials have been asked to refer all Ebola questions to the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee, where, other than confirmations that there are no confirmed cases of Ebola in Florida, little information is being released.

The department did not return calls or answer numerous emails sent this week other than to say Gov. Rick Scott was holding a press conference Friday asking for more action from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That tactic, some say, is leaving the public skeptical about whether the government can handle not just the medical aspects of Ebola but public education and outreach as well.

The government, health organizations and the CDC appear to be using a strategy of trying to minimize the threat to avoid mass hysteria among Americans, said Kelli Burns, an associate professor of communications at the University of South Florida.

“In doing so, they are not communicating the information and guidance people believe they are entitled to have,’’ Burns said. “All organizations should have a crisis communications plan in place to address likely risks, and by now, we should have seen these plans activated.

“Ebola may not yet be a health crisis in the United States,” she said, “but it is quickly becoming a public relations crisis for the organizations involved.”

She said the best crisis management strategy is one of transparency, accuracy and honesty.

If people think the government and health organizations aren’t following those guidelines, “it may create more problems than the actual crisis,’’ Burns said.

A lot more can be done, she said, to quell the rising anxiety of the public.

“I am surprised we have not yet seen public service announcements and other communications that would help the public better understand the symptoms, risks and how to respond if Ebola is suspected,” she said. “At the same time, organizations are reluctant to risk generating more fear and panic in response to these communications. It is a delicate balancing act, but it is quickly becoming apparent that the current approach is not working.”

There is an intense interest in this issue from the public, and information is not reaching the people, she said.

“For example, the home page of the Florida Department of Health has no mention of Ebola, and the Florida Division of Emergency Management website provides press releases from the Joint Information Center about the latest developments, but no specific information that could be beneficial to the people of Florida,” Burns said.

Add to that: social media.

“Rumors, misinformation and criticism run rampant on (social media) sites and organizations should both monitor and be part of these conversations,” she said. “The ability of people to use social media also makes it even more critical that organizations are up front with the information that they have.”

That’s not to say the state is standing still in all this.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Friday asked federal officials to add Florida airports to the list of the five around the country that have stepped up security to monitor travelers who may be carrying the Ebola virus.

Scott didn’t specify whether he wanted all airports or only the state’s major airports to have increased safety screenings, saying the federal government should look at airports where potential patients are coming from West Africa.

“We are thankful we do not have a case of Ebola in Florida and we hope we never do,” the governor said. “But my top priority is making sure that Florida stays safe.”

He previously called on Florida hospitals to hold mandatory training to prepare their employees for Ebola. Forty-six had reported that their training is complete.

And the Florida National Guard is now ramping up its preparedness efforts by setting up two rapid response teams that will be able to provide health-care services for any potential Ebola cases in Florida.

With all the activity going on in the state, there’s still little information addressing the concerns of the public, said Kelly Page Werder, associate professor of strategic communication at USF.

“The Ebola crisis is a complex issue with many stakeholders who, to this point, have not engaged in a coordinated effort to communicate one clear message about Florida’s health emergency preparedness,” she said. “Full and complete transparency is the hallmark of effective crisis management. Any lack of full disclosure will eventually become known and only worsen the public perception of our state’s ability to manage this and other crises effectively.”

In an information vacuum, she said, rumors take on lives of their own.

“In the case of rumors, the best practice is to refrain from repeating the rumor, while at the same time addressing concerns resulting from the rumor,” she said. “This can be done by communicating the state’s emergency preparedness plan and producing evidence that reinforces our ability to enact it.”

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