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Friday, April 16th, 2021

Former homeland security advisor plots response principles for crisis, emergency managers

Tom Bossert

Public trust must be maintained in preparing for and responding to another large-scale biological event like the ongoing novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, a former Trump administration emergency management expert told the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense on Monday.

Tom Bossert, president of Trinity Cyber Inc., and former deputy assistant to President Donald Trump for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the White House, said that what he has learned during his career in emergency management is that maintaining public trust during a wide-spread public health emergency must be prioritized.

“If you lose that public trust, then you lose your ability to lead and convince people to do what’s right even if it’s in their own interests,” Bossert told commission members during their pre-recorded Nov. 30 virtual meeting, entitled “A Nation Unprepared: Incomplete Implementation of the National Blueprint for Biodefense.”

Members of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense met to assess the nation’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic compared with the implementation of their recommendations in A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts.

Former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, co-chairman of the commission, noted that when the bipartisan blueprint was released in 2015, the commission knew then that the nation remained highly vulnerable to biological threats. In its report, the commission made 33 recommendations on how to prevent, deter, prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate intentional, accidental and naturally occurring biological events.

“Congress and the Obama and Trump administrations took steps to enhance the nation’s biodefense over the last five years, including implementing several of the commission’s recommendations,” Lieberman said. “However, the government remains unprepared for events like COVID-19.”

“The blueprint is a tool that we felt could help the government get its house in order before the nation faced a large-scale biological incident,” added former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who also served as the nation’s first Homeland Security Secretary and who now co-chairs the commission. “But as COVID-19 has demonstrated, obviously the job is not done. There are still many recommendations from our report that have not been fully addressed.”

As the United States continues efforts to address another surge in coronavirus cases and related deaths, several experts offered recommendations aligned with the commission’s blueprint recommendations during its meeting. 

For instance, Bossert, who said he was “deeply involved” in drafting the nation’s COVID-19 pandemic response and implementation plans, highlighted what he called “pretty simple principles” that crisis managers and emergency management leaders should follow when it comes to maintaining the public’s trust. They are to:

  1. “Tell people everything that you know and you tell them as soon as you know it. We have watched that principle be violated” during the current pandemic, he said.
  2. Tell the public what you don’t know. “If you’re really good, you tell them everything that you don’t know,” he said. “It’s a difficult task.”
  3. Acknowledge uncertainty, another principle lost on the current administration, said Bossert.
  4. At the very least, combine these principles with the core basic requirement of not overpromising and not “over-reassuring, if that’s a term,” he said. “I think that’s going to be applicable as we move toward vaccine messaging and distribution.”
  5. Do not make fun of people’s feelings, whether they’re fearful or skeptical about what you are telling them. Instead, try to educate people as best you can to change their views.
  6. Explain the rationale behind decision making rather than just explaining a decision, a chance that was missed during the Trump administration’s early COVID-19 response “and continues, in my view, to elude our messaging,” Bossert said.
  7. “Share the burden of complex problems with others,” he said. “People need things to do so let’s give them something to do.” 

For example, when Americans learned about the stateside outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year, they did not know how to respond and rushed out to buy toilet paper and hoarded things in ways that would have been more fitting for a hurricane or earthquake, instead of being involved in a sustained, year-long, joint effort, Bossert said. 

When people don’t have specific assignments, “they go out and make up something for themselves to do,” Bossert said. “Of course we’ve watched that play out.”

Any good leader — not just emergency management or crisis leaders — also might explain what the future holds for people. “If you give them a sense that [a situation] might turn into something that’s difficult for more than a day or a week, but rather a year, and that their behavior will have to change, and you foreshadow that, it’s reassuring,” said Bossert.  

In a practical application of that principle, Bossert explained that he recently spoke with a few hundred school administrators and “pleaded with them to consider foreshadowing to their parents in their districts not only the conditions that they would employ to allow children to return to school safely but also the trigger conditions they would consider for reclosing schools.”

“If you do that in advance, people trust that it’s a thoughtful process and they abide by your decision,” he said. “They don’t feel like they’ve fallen prey to some arbitrary political pressure or CNN news-making cycle.”

Bossert said that the school administrators who took his advice later called him to say that regardless of a parent’s political views, all of the parents appreciated knowing critical information beforehand. 

These principles, Bossert said, would apply during any biological attack or the next naturally occurring outbreak.

During his time with the Trump administration, Bossert said that staff embarked on a simultaneous pandemic containment and response initiative, but didn’t provide information on their activities to the public, and subsequently undermined public trust by shutting down places that didn’t need to be shut down.

Bossert also called it a “terrible oversight” that the administration did not plan for nationwide mask-wearing and did not integrate testing and hospital capacity. And because the government is “willfully ignoring” the role of children and youth in spreading the virus by allowing some 70 million of them to go back to school in September, “we’ve run ourselves into a perfect storm here.”

“The reality is we’ll hit the 400,000 death mark based on statistical information,” he said.

Additionally, Bossert recommended that a 9/11-type commission be developed to improve capabilities for future events because the real key to any national response is setting common organizational objectives. “You can’t achieve unity of effort without setting common objectives,” he said.

And because the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense thinks that the United States government remains woefully unprepared for another large-scale biological event, members plan to release an implementation status report in January 2021, said Lieberman, who added that the report is currently under development and will be informed by the expert testimonies received on Nov. 30.