two individuals wearing hazmat suits

We asked several ICMA leaders for their perspectives on how they are preparing for and dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

By Robert Kristof, city manager, Timisoara, Romania, and ICMA Regional Vice President

When I arrived in the United States for the ICMA Executive Board meeting that began on February 28, I learned my experience with the coronavirus was much different than most of the Western World. In Romania, we have had several people who were suspected to have the coronavirus.  Three people have tested positive for the virus and one of those patients has already recovered.  Because of the proximity and frequent travel between Romania and Italy, there is now a policy that anyone coming from Italy must stay at home for 14 days.  If they manifest any symptoms, they call the local hospital.

Patient zero in my city of Timisoara came from Italy and was quarantined at home. She developed a cough and transport was arranged to the hospital.  Health workers in hermetically sealed suits put her in a self-contained stretcher and transported her to the hospital for treatment. [see video] She was found to be in the early stage of the virus and was put into isolation.  As a result of the diagnosis, everyone who came into contact with patient zero also had to be tested and, fortunately, those individuals tested negative.   

Romania is working closely with its municipalities to ensure a comprehensive pandemic response.  Safety measures have been implemented at all airports.  Anyone coming from Italy by air is screened at the airport.  Officials use thermal scanners and take everyone’s temperature.  A person with an elevated temperature is immediately transported to the hospital for testing.

Expedited procurement procedures are being used by local governments to acquire thermal scanners, safety equipment, and tiny home containers for those who are put into isolation.  Those in quarantine receive compensation from the state at 75% of their salary.

For now, it’s an isolated case in my city.  We remain vigilant and transparent.  The trust we have built reassures residents that we are doing our best to keep everyone safe. 

By Martha Bennett, city manager, Lake Oswego, Oregon, and past ICMA Regional Vice President

There are two Lake Oswego residents who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Here are some initial thoughts as others may be confronting an outbreak: 

  1. There will be a lot of information—some of it good, some of it bad.  It’s important to be able to point employees and the public to trusted and credible sources.  Additionally, because health issues are generally managed by the county, in a city, it’s important to have a good relationship with the county health office so that you get information before it is released it to the general public.  Never underestimate the importance of monitoring social media so that you can redirect people to accurate information.  In this case, the CDC, the Oregon Health Authority, and Clackamas County are providing really great information.
  2. The city’s top priority has to be protecting the health and safety of its employees (because without them, you can’t provide services).  This includes mental health.  Employees need to know that you care, that they have someone to talk to, and that resources will be provided.  The executive team, human resources, and your employee assistance program need to be ready to support employees.  You may also make decisions that are designed to reduce anxiety that you might not make if the virus was the common cold.  For example, we decided that the city would send employees home if they came to work with the signs of respiratory illness.  We would not normally do this, but we know that a person who is coughing or sneezing will increase the anxiety of their coworkers (and the public).
  3. Your continuity of operations plans might not quite fit the situation.  In the last 24 hours, we’ve had to develop new lists of essential personnel because we’ll need different people if we have to close a city operation for a 14-day quarantine.  It’s been a great exercise, although a surprise.
  4. The council needs information.  A lot of it.  Frequently.  As a manager, you need to make sure that you are providing regular and predictable information to the elected officials. They are hearing even more rumors than you are, so make sure you prioritize their needs.

By Ed Shikada, city manager Palo Alto, California, and ICMA Regional Vice President

While there are a number of cases in the surrounding area, there are no confirmed cases in Palo Alto at present. 

This is clearly a rapidly evolving situation locally in each of our communities, with global implications.  While our community and workforce are still in the initial stages of addressing this public health concern, the community’s concern and desire for leadership to respond is clearly present.  We are prioritizing public communication parallel to our operational contingency planning. 

As we respond to the ongoing coronavirus concerns and societal reaction, it’s become clear the community responses have varied widely from panic to dismissal, with potentially divisive results.  In particular, elderly residents are concerned that government, and in particular young people, are not taking the threat seriously enough and thereby increasing the threat to them.  This poses a unique social condition that tests our ability to adapt our communication strategies accordingly.  I’ve reached out to Stanford University to see if they have an interest in helping us navigate through the coming days and weeks.  And I look forward to comparing notes and sharing lessons with other communities as we continue through the weeks ahead.

By Sander van Waveren, City Managers Association of the Netherlands

Corona reached the Netherlands relatively late, but the number of cases has been growing quickly, with 600 confirmed cases as of March 12. Local governments, organizations, and businesses have been following the instructions of the national government’s health institute, which focus on preventive measures, such as attention to hygiene and working from home more often, if possible. In general people are responding well, for example by not shaking hands.

Local government organizations are preparing for further increases in the number of cases and the effect on the services that we need to deliver to the community. This includes identifying critical processes and staff members, and preparing measures to allow those to continue, while being able to close down noncritical activities. In some municipalities and provinces, preliminary measures are taken, like having individual employees make an inventory of what’s necessary to be able to work from home. Employees who are not feeling well are already being advised to stay home.

Events attended by more than 100 people are not permitted.

By Graeme McDonald, managing director, Solace & Solace in Business

Local authorities in the United Kingdom have been working closely with the government and health partners, as well as organizations like Solace, to ensure they undertake an appropriate response to the coronavirus. The key messages being conveyed are:

  • Take precaution. Senior officers have been urged to undertake a review of their business continuity plans and to familiarize themselves with their local resilience forum pandemic framework so they know how to respond to any impacts on their workforce and services, as well as knowing what to do in the event of a significant number of fatalities.
  • Be proportionate. Councils are being encouraged to respond to the virus in an appropriate manner. While all local authorities should be ready to act, they are being warned against overreacting.
  • Be flexible. Local authorities should be prepared for all eventualities as the response is likely to vary from place to place.

The key thing is for local authorities to follow the government’s advice, convey clear and consistent messaging, and trust their processes. Information is available on the Local Government Association’s website.

Of primary concern to many councils is the range of challenges being placed on social care. Social care is at the core of our response, both as a way of alleviating pressure on overstretched health services, but also because of our responsibilities to at-risk, vulnerable people. Business continuity plans are being tested to ensure these areas in particular are ready if and when the situation worsens.

For the government’s part, it used the budget on March 11 to announce a £5bn COVID-19 Response Fund for the NHS and other public services to tackle the virus. The chancellor has also provided assurances that additional funding will be provided to help public services in their response if it is needed.

In addition to this, a £500m hardship fund is to be distributed by local authorities to some of the most vulnerable affected by the coronavirus, with a view to providing additional council tax support. Local government is, however, still awaiting the government’s allocation of the Public Health Grant for 2020-21.

The situation is changing fast as the country prepares to move in to a new phase to try and delay the spread of the virus, whereas the focus has until now been on containing the outbreak.

For additional information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.

Join a members-only conversation on the Coronavirus – ICMA is beta testing its new member community ICMA Connect and has set up a test group to share resources, ideas, and best practices on preparing for and responding to COVID-19. If you are interested in participating, you can sign up to join the discussion group. Space is limited.


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