Maryland Department of Planning Staff Step Up to Support Partner Agencies Amid COVID-19 Pandemic: Part II

“The Biggest Thing That’s Ever Happened”

Planning Assistance in Action 

by Steven H. Allan, AICP, Planner with the Office of Planning, Education and Outreach at the Maryland Historical Trust, with Kristen E. Humphrey, MLA, Local Assistance and Training

Screenshot showing the homepage of the Maryland Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rumor Control website.

In mid-December 2020, Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) Director, Elizabeth Hughes, informed me that I had been selected for an interim reassignment to help fill a critical staffing need within the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) and/or the Maryland Emergency Management Administration (MEMA). She explained this move was part of a larger effort to tap various personnel from across state government to assist with the COVID-19 response effort as it entered the vaccination phase, moving, hopefully, toward an end of the pandemic.

At that time, of course, the pandemic, or as a colleague aptly described it, “the biggest thing that’s ever happened,” was still marching forward with infection rates and death tolls increasing at an exponential rate. So, to be selected, felt like an honor and the chance to do my part, even without knowing how long the deployment would last or what it might entail.

My co-workers and I, along with those chosen from other agencies, were given a list of about 60 possible assignments to review, many of them requiring medical training or knowledge, and not many of which seemed suited to my vocation as a planner. Not knowing exactly what was needed and what the work a planner might assist with in the middle of this crisis might look like, I was half expecting an assignment driving around truckloads of vaccine in the middle of the night, building on past experience.

Years earlier, I had worked in emergency management, but in the field, not from behind a desk. I had been a Disaster Action Team member during the Missouri River floods of ‘93 and later, worked on fire response duty in Baltimore City for the American Red Cross Disaster Action Team.

Having been near the front lines, albeit in very different types of disasters than a pandemic, I had a genuine appreciation for the mobilization effort that lay ahead. Later I would learn that besides myself, more than 11,000 people would be involved in Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccination effort, so this was very big indeed! I felt humbled in the face of such an enormous effort.

However, one description seemed like a pretty good fit. This position involved, among other tasks, creating and managing information/data in Google Docs, with which I had some experience over the years. This position was doing something called Social Listening/Rumor Control, and I was intrigued.

While my resume disappeared somewhere into the depths of the Multiagency Coordination (MAC) Group Commanders’ offices, I conferred with Planning’s own Louie Kiskowski, who was already working with MDH as an HR Staffing Analysts for the Planning and Staffing Group and was helping place other colleagues in appropriate roles in the emergency effort. Louie advised me that he thought it sounded like a good fit, as well. Shortly after, MEMA Planning Section Chief, Marcia Deppen, notified Erik Wescoat, Digital Engagement Coordinator at MEMA, that I was available to assist him on the Rumor Control team of the Joint Information Center (JIC).

The JIC is an emergency control center that was created by partners MEMA and MDH, and managed respectively by Ed McDonough, Public Information Officer at MEMA, and Deidre McCabe, Director of Communications at MDH, for the purpose of responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Erik set up a time after the holidays to discuss the assignment further. 

After a brief discussion, Erik explained that serving as the Rumor Control Media Monitor involved acting as an extra set of eyes and ears for the JIC, helping to make sure that agency leaders were up to date on the latest public opinion, misinformation, disinformation, and rumors evident from around the state that, to keep the public safe, would need to be addressed. My job would have three main responsibilities:

  1. Monitoring and “taking the pulse” of the local, state, and national media, and our constituents, across all media platforms (i.e., both social and traditional media).
  2. Identifying misinformation, disinformation, or rumors that may need to be addressed and posting them on the COVID-19 Rumor Control Page.
  3. Developing language that would effectively combat misinformation, disinformation, and rumors. 

This last one wasThe Big One. Once we identified something that needed to be addressed, we would have to very clearly and carefully deliver fact-based responses to combat the false or misleading information. A first step involved familiarizing myself with the Rumor Control Page, as it contained numerous examples of the types of concerns the JIC would be seeking to clarify, including dispelling non-factual rumors, to quell fears and instill confidence in the medicine and science behind the vaccines, and protect the health of all Marylander’s moving forward.

Even before the assignment officially began, I started collecting media stories across the spectrum of news outlets to give me something to go on. Normally, I read four newspapers a day. Suddenly, my news consumption ballooned to dozens of papers, plus cable news feeds, as well as social media. The quantity of information, and the enormity of the misinformation and rumors, was staggering.

To keep organized, I developed a spreadsheet of Rumor Control Updates that I employed to document each rumor or frequently mentioned comment. These would then be reviewed and potentially included on MEMA’s Rumor Control Page. This idea served me well as it allowed me to readily track all the rumors coming in; provide source links and comments to be used in drafting responses; and cross reference instances of similar content. I ended up tracking nearly 130 rumors in all, not including those weeded out as being too outlandish for rational response.

With the tsunami of information and dis/misinformation circulating, it took a little time getting everything up to speed. But, by late January, we met with Emily Allen Lucht, Communications and Media Specialist at the Maryland Center for School Safety, whose role with the JIC was Rumor Control data entry czar, and the web developers.

By the end of February, the Rumor Control Page was up and running, and after a period of trial and error (all on the fly!) our team developed, then streamlined, a system of weekly updates. This progressed smoothly until the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was famously put on hold, which caused a significant spike in the number of rumors and amount of misinformation seen across all media platforms globally.

I credit my experience assisting in answering public inquiries to the Governor on planning related issues as great preparation for this role. Responses must provide the information requested while following state protocol, and conform to the language from the lead agency, in this case primarily MDH, but also the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Additionally, we used trusted medical sources. For example, we consulted online sources published by the University of Nebraska Medical Center to answer a query about the effects of alcohol use and the vaccine.

Not long after things were up and running, a perfect storm of circumstances collided to reduce the urgent need for the Rumor Control Page. First, the supply of vaccine began to eclipse demand amid growing “vaccine hesitancy,” coupled with the sometimes-conflicting guidance about the use of personal protective equipment, social distancing, and the uneven easing of capacity restrictions because of differing local policies. This was not unique to Maryland, and, by the middle of May, it seemed that the patchwork of vaccine availability/accessibility across the country, and the degree to which some places fared better than others, were not tied to any one particular strategy.

Maryland has done a commendable job managing the pandemic, from quarantining to testing, and treatment to vaccine distribution. Many moving parts had to work in concert with one another to achieve the best outcome possible. Because we worked together, the state is collectively emerging from the darkness and into the light.

Through this experience, I was reminded that it is essential, as in so many other aspects of in the planning and implementation of government projects — whether in response to a crisis or not — to actively engage the public. Thoughtful and careful public participation is paramount in keeping Maryland residents informed and with dispelling inaccurate and harmful information.

Now, as we move into the summer months, my time on the project is winding down, but every day I’m still keeping my eyes open and ears to the ground, identifying and getting ahead of rumors and false information that could negatively impact the on-going effort to vaccinate as many Marylanders as possible, save lives, and continue our safest possible return to a “new normal.”

As for me, I appreciate having been a small part of the biggest thing that’s ever happened.

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