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CDC Praises Local Response, Notes DOH Flaws

December 15, 2015, 5:18 PM HST (Updated December 15, 2015, 5:19 PM)
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Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed a full interim assessment of the Hawai’i Department of Health’s response to the dengue fever outbreak on the Big Island, following his early visit to the state.

Dr. Petersen was on Oahu on Tuesday, Dec. 1, reviewing DOH’s communication and outreach work, surveillance, procedures, lab testing, and epidemiologic data regarding the dengue outbreak. He spent the next two days in various areas of the Big Island before going back to DOH headquarters in Honolulu on Dec. 4.

According to the assessment, Dr. Petersen called the DOH’s dengue fever response “timely, well considered, and appropriate.” He also said that all public health response aspects have been addressed adequately, including community outreach, surveillance, diagnostic testing, medical care, and vector control.

There were critical issues found within the DOH’s infrastructure, however, especially within its communication department and epidemiologic capacities.

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On the communication front, Dr. Petersen noted the challenges of reaching diverse communities spread out throughout the island, but stated that the outbreak “soon overwhelmed the one full-time communications professional at the State Health Department and a public relations firm was hired.” Furthermore, he states that there is no “consistent and proactive media strategy” in place, despite the Fight the Bite campaign that was started by Bennet Group Strategic Communications.

Bennet Group won’t be available to the DOH for much longer, since the report notes that funding available for the PR firm will run out. Citing the department’s communication capacity as “woefully adequate,” Petersen recommended hiring additional communication personnel on a longer-term basis that can assist with social media and website information. Currently, CDC communication experts are helping out on a short-term basis.

Also in the report, Dr. Petersen says that if another health crisis impacted the Big Island, it would potentially overwhelm epidemiologic resources. He says that basic surveillance and dengue fever case follow-up is taking place, but that resources are “taxed,” keeping staff from going in-depth on data and conducting additional in-depth investigations.

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Praise was given for response coordination, led by Darryl Oliveira, Hawai’i County Civil Defense Administrator and overall incident command coordinator, bringing together the Hawai’i County Fire Department, Department of Parks and Recreation, Public Works, and other agencies. Dr. Petersen called the coordination effort “nearly seamless” and “one of the best I have witnessed anywhere.”

Laboratory testing was also a highlight of the assessment, with protocols being described as “state of the art.” The State Laboratories Division is able to test samples within 24-48 hours of coming in, and new procedures have been put in for expedited shipping.

To read the full assessment, visit the DOH website.

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