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The Time for Community-Based Organizations to Plan for a Disease-Related Public Health Emergency is Now

  • Disaster Relief,
  • Health,
  • nonprofits

Community-based organizations need emergency operations plans in place to help them respond effectively to their staff members, clients and volunteers.

As coronavirus/COVID-19 cases continue to be confirmed in the United States, health experts warn that the virus’ spread in the country is inevitable. That means community-based organizations (CBOs), like the many nonprofit agencies here in North Texas that are often the frontline of assistance during local public health emergencies – will need emergency operations plans in place to help them respond effectively to their staff members, clients and volunteers.

CBOs should direct staff members and clients to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), local health authorities and emergency preparedness/management offices, each of which provides the best sources of current information and advisories, including preventive measures. But what are CBOs to do to prepare for the virus in our community? Follow a plan that’s put in place before such an event happens, and the best time to plan for an emergency is before it occurs.

CBOs often serve vulnerable populations, such as people who are homeless or are culturally, socially or geographically isolated, or those who can be at increased risk for contagious illnesses. It is critical that CBOs who serve these populations have a documented emergency operations plan. Clients who are homeless or have low incomes may not have access to health care. Other clients may not be able to take paid sick leave from work or work from home if quarantined. A public health crisis may cause clients and communities to need a CBO’s services even more. An emergency operations plan will give CBOs a strategy that supports clients, staff and volunteers.

Some of the items CBOs will want to build into their emergency operations plan includes the following:

  • Determine who will be responsible for coordination and execution of the plan if services have to move, be rescheduled or are temporarily suspended.  Who will be responsible for communicating to staff, volunteers, clients and partners, and how will information be communicated? Do you have an updated, current contact list for key staff and community partners?  Identify the platforms you can use (such as text messaging, a website or social media) to communicate information both inside and outside your organization.
  • Make a list of community partners, including local health departments, other community organizations and faith community partners, who can help you provide services should your operations be temporarily reduced or suspended.  Can services be delivered differently or in partnership with other organizations? For instance, can a fixed site meal program become mobile, or similarly, if a school closes, can student lunches be delivered to an open community center or library for pick up?
  • Identify what level of absenteeism (worker, volunteer and client) may be disruptive to your daily operations. What will you do if you need to close temporarily or postpone/ reschedule programming due to absenteeism?  Staff and volunteers may need to stay home when they are sick, or to care for a sick relative or children in the event of school closings. If an individual is quarantined because of exposure, this could last two weeks.  What is the volume or duration of absenteeism that would require you to postpone or temporarily suspend programming?
  • Review your current sick leave and telework policies. Do the policies need to be updated? Do they address specific issues or challenges that may arise due to extended quarantines and/or closings? What is your plan to address absences with volunteers, in the event they are impacted and unable to participate?
  • Identify critical job functions and roles. Plan for alternative coverage by cross-training workers and ensuring that workers have access to the appropriate systems, files, facilities as needed in the event they need to take on additional duties temporarily.
  • Plan for how you can increase space between people or limit face-to-face contact.  Review your upcoming schedule of events and consider any services you offer at partner locations.  Do you need to cancel or postpone events?  Can you use video conferencing, email, phone or other technology-based services to meet with staff or clients without requiring people to be in the same room? If staff use shared servers, can these be accessed remotely? Do all staff have sufficient access to data plans, WiFi and equipment to work from home such as phones and laptops?  Can you limit access to your organization to only essential visitors?
  • Be sure you have sufficient prevention supplies available at your organization. Do you have ample supplies of hand sanitizer, tissues, soap, paper towels, toilet paper and cleaning supplies at all your program locations and available for staff and clients?  You may want to provide extra hand sanitizer and hand washing stations, as well as doing more frequent cleanings to high- use areas, such as reception areas, training rooms and bathrooms, and frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, tables and countertops.

Disasters and emergencies can happen at any time and having a plan in place is essential. Your emergency operations plan will protect the health and safety of your clients, staff, volunteers and the community, while preserving your ability to provide valuable services, especially during a community emergency.

Dimple Sureka, M.D.
Dimple Sureka, M.D.
Community Philanthropy Officer

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