Expert advice for mayors and governors to help their towns, cities, and states weather the coronavirus pandemic

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  • Local leadership - this country's mayors and governors - are in a key position to minimize deaths and help citizens and health care workers stay healthy.
  • The novel coronavirus is different from other disasters. It's not a one-to-two-day event like a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, or wildfire.
  • The public wants a date to look forward to for when this will all be over, but that's not how viruses work. Leaders need to take the long view when coming up with a plan.
  • Experts told Business Insider that practical, outside-the box ways to address the length of the response, including graduating doctors, pharmacists, and nursing students early can help overworked health-care workers.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Local leadership - this country's mayors and governors - are in a key position to minimize deaths and help citizens and health care workers stay healthy.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Advertisement

Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told the Today show that she's "very worried," about every city in the US.

"If we do things together well, almost perfectly, we could get in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 fatalities," Birx said. "The worst-case projections show between 1.6 million and 2.2 million deaths if you do nothing."

Decisive, swift local leadership can help keep those numbers low.
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Adapt and Learn, Fast

The novel coronavirus is different from other disasters. It's not a one-to-two-day event like a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, or wildfire.

"Public officials need to listen to scientists and consider this epidemic as the most serious health event to occur in 100 years," Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of global health sciences at the University of California San Diego, told Business Insider. Strathdee is also the author of The Perfect Predator, a book about her husband's battle with a deadly microbe. Unknowns abound with this virus. Unlike tried-and-true recovery methods honed in the wake of natural disasters, on-the-ground learning and flexibility will save lives. Advertisement

"Pandemic leadership is unique because the data is evolving. Leadership needs to partner with scientists, and other leaders at different points of impact to share, adapt, and learn," said Dr. Njoki Mwarumba, a professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of Nebraska.

The longer timeline is also an unpredictable one: The public wants a date to look forward to for when this will all be over, but that's not how viruses work. Leaders need to take the long view when coming up with a plan.

"Based on pandemic literature, we know pandemics tend to have post-peak outbreaks. Just because you have peaked does not give an all clear," said Mwarumba. Advertisement

She recommends practical, outside-the box ways to address the length of this response, including graduating doctors, pharmacists, and nursing students early so they can help overworked health-care workers.

Communicate Honestly and Empathetically

"Misinformation can spread faster than the virus," said Strathdee, pointing to President Trump's poor early communication about the virus as what not to do. Leaders need to trust scientists and medical advisors, put their advice into practice quickly, and explain that rationale to the public in real-time.

Transparency is key to keeping people calm and allaying panic, said Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine. It's important that mayors and governors are aligned with other leaders in their region, as well as those at the top of healthcare, transportation, policing, and other agencies. Advertisement

All known information should be out on the table and people should hear a consistent message. Mixed messages from different parts of local government will cause chaos and confusion. "Leaders have to be honest, truthful, and confident in what they say. They must speak clearly and kindly with empathy, " said Shah.

Inclusivity Saves (Everyone's) Lives

Everyone counts when it comes to fighting a pandemic.

"If a segment of the population is left behind - homeless, undocumented persons, or others - the entire community is at risk," according to Strathdee. Advertisement

Leaders must also seriously prioritize their health care workers, both directly and via the local community.

"Mobilize community members so people realize that everyone can do something to help others by making masks, buying groceries for vulnerable neighbors, or treating a health care worker with a voucher for food delivery," Strathdee said. Mental health care for doctors, nurses, and others on the front lines is also imperative.Advertisement

"From a public health standpoint, any community can only prepare, respond, and recover from this pandemic as a whole or not at all," said Mwarumba.

Mental Health Care is Health Care

During the pandemic, many people are experiencing heightened anxiety and feelings of panic, resulting in shorter attention spans, difficulty focusing, lethargy, and some epic insomnia.

And the ongoing stress affects people's fight-flight-freeze response. To help their communities, leaders must understand this basic psychology: "People can act very differently than they normally do when they feel stress and insecurity. They often become hostile, defiant, or at the very least, rude. A good leader will understand this and not take it personally," said Christopher Fagundes, a psychiatry professor at Rice University. Advertisement

This pandemic is a trauma - just because it's slow-moving doesn't make it less so.

"Approximately 25% of people will meet criteria for major depression after a stressful life event," Fagundes added.

There will be long-term effects from coronavirus. Local leaders need to be prepared for that eventuality and willing and able to support mental-health resources in their communities. Advertisement

That's especially important for five groups of people, according to Shah: People with pre-existing mental-health conditions; substance abusers; kids; the elderly; and first responders.

Shah adds, "These are the people more at stress. Leaders must provide help and hope for them, and resources," including online support groups, hotlines, and other public mental health resources.

Put Politics Aside

"I'd like public officials to put partisan political differences aside and support one another," Strathdee said. Advertisement

Looking around, Shah thinks that most leaders really are doing what they can. "It's easy to blame, but this isn't time for the blame game. This is a time to be united. There will be plenty of time to look back at what we did wrong later," he said.

"The America we know and love is under siege by an invisible invader. It's time to rise above the fray and do what's best for the health of all Americans, no matter who they vote for," Strathdee said. Do you have a personal experience with the coronavirus you'd like to share? Or a tip on how your town or community is handling the pandemic? Please email covidtips@businessinsider.com and tell us your story.Advertisement

Do you have a personal experience with the coronavirus you'd like to share? Or a tip on how your town or community is handling the pandemic? Please email covidtips@businessinsider.com and tell us your story.

And get the latest coronavirus analysis and research from Business Insider Intelligence on how COVID-19 is impacting businesses.

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