Aspen’s electeds criticize COVID-19 crisis information dissemenation
Community Meeting on Thursday, April 9
A virtual community meeting will be hosted at 2 p.m. This will serve as an opportunity to inform the community of the current status of the state of Pitkin County, as it pertains to COVID-19 and provide a platform for public questions.
You can watch online at http://live.grassrootstv.org/cablecastapi/live?channel_id=1&use_cdn=false or on Comcast channel 11, 12 or HD on channel 880
Listen to Aspen Public Radio at 91.5 in Aspen and 88.9 in Carbondale or tune into KDNK in Pitkin County on 88.1, 88.3, 88.5, and 99.9.
Officials with the Pitkin County Public Health Incident Management team responded Wednesday after Aspen City Council members criticized them for how they have been disseminating information to the community during the COVID-19 crisis.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein, along with two other elected officials, said during a public meeting Monday he’s been frustrated that there’s been no specificity of why there is no testing of the virus on people, or what the incident management team’s efforts are in obtaining test kits and protective personal equipment for health care workers.
“I’d like to see full disclosure and I’m not seeing it,” he said. “I want to know, and wanted to know three weeks ago or two weeks ago, where we are in test capacity, and all we get from the incident management team is that ‘this is what the policy is,’ not why it is, not that we want to test more. … People want to know why a policy is why it is, not just ‘this is what the policy is and quit asking.’
“But the rest of the story is that we don’t have any testing capabilities, so the people in the community, I included, are really frustrated that there’s not a full communication.”
When public testing stopped March 12 after two days, officials from the incident management team explained to local media that nationally, there were not enough test kits, as well as personal protective equipment for health care workers, and the state’s capacity to process test results was limited.
That message has been conveyed on the county public health department’s social media more than once since testing ceased here.
“We know everyone is under stress and looking for answers but we really need everyone in the community to actively seek information,” Tracy Trulove, the city’s communications director and lead public information officer for the incident management team, said Wednesday. “We have numerous channels set up over the past few weeks that detail where we are in our response to this incident. Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, even a Tik Tok video or two, trying to keep the community informed.
“We’ve only known this virus for a couple months now, and just like you, we are doing our best with the limited information we have available to us.”
Aspen Ambulance Director Gabe Muething, who also is on the incident management team, appears in an April 7 video, explaining the test issue. It was posted on the county’s website and Facebook page the day after City Council’s meeting, and Trulove said said the timing was coincidental.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said Monday she dittoed Hauenstein’s comments and acknowledged that communication strategies have to improve, particularly around testing and how long “stay-at-home orders” to slow the spread of the virus could be.
“I think we’ve all experienced a little bit of heads on a pike — ‘Why aren’t you guys testing?’ There’s a real anger and real panic,” she said, adding taking a test is only a snapshot in time and information is out there, it’s a matter of the public paying attention to it. “We all need to prepare the public for a little more, that when you flatten the curve you are lengthening the curve.
“We’re all avoiding over-surging the hospitals but that also means that people who are vulnerable to transmission are going to be catching it for a longer period of time, and this can extend a lot further than other people think.”
She said she supports increased communication efforts from the city in the form of outside public relations firms.
“I do think we’re going to need a communications team for that a little more directly,” Richards said, suggesting an expense estimate of between $75,000 and $100,000. “For me it’s a matter of selecting one or two firms that will be in charge of developing that ongoing message and working as an adjunct, in coordination with the incident management team.”
Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she wants more details before agreeing to spend more money on a communications team.
But she agreed that the public is hungry for information, particularly on the testing issue.
“I really support IMT coming out with something specific to testing, because I get that question constantly from the community,” she said. “If we could have a little bit more robust communication about where they stand with testing availability.”
City Manager Sara Ott said she is in contact with the incident management team three times a week and communicates with elected officials five times a week.
A local medical team is working on testing options but there is no silver bullet, and that can be difficult to process for people.
“They aren’t satisfied with the answer, it’s not the lack of giving information,” Ott said. “We happened to be in a community that isn’t used to hearing this kind of stuff.”
She told council on Monday that she has put significant resources into the incident management team, including Trulove and Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn, who are serving as public information officers.
Ott also noted that staff members from the environmental health and the community development departments are contributing to the incident management team.
Richards acknowledged Trulove and city staff are doing a “great job” on loan to the incident management team and they’re doing very important work.
Mullins agreed that Trulove and Mitzi Rapkin, the city’s communications manager, have done a good job with information disseminated in newspapers and on the municipal government’s website.
But pointing people to resources, whether it is for mental health or financial relief, is another layer of communication that’s needed in the city, according to elected officials.
“I think there’s a big opportunity for us to increase our communication efforts,” said Mayor Torre.
Councilman Skippy Mesirow echoed that sentiment.
“I would be looking for a very comprehensive communications approach,” he said. “I really want to drive home how important it is for us to take hold of this narrative … we’re all living this story together.”
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