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Spreading facts, not fear

By J.C. Jimenez

Town Manager, Town of Bay Harbor Islands, Florida

Vice President, Miami-Dade City and County Management Association

With an employee testing positive for COVID-19, and other employees and residents who interacted with this employee seeking medical attention, our small town in the middle of Biscayne Bay (population under 5000) found itself in the middle of a growing media frenzy on, of all days, a Friday the 13th.

As soon as our employee informed us of their medical issue, we took immediate steps, based on the CDC’s guidelines, to inform our small staff on what we were doing.

I worked closely with our Town’s HR Manager to make sure employee concerns were addressed and that every staffer had access to information and medical help, as directed by the CDC and State of Florida’s guidance. We also made sure part-time employees without health insurance were connected directly with our Florida Department of Health. We reviewed all pertinent policies and implemented new ones in light of the situation, including the ability to work from home.

As would be expected, word of a possible positive case leaked out to the media before the Health Department could confirm our employee’s test and we could issue our first piece of outward facing public communication. The media, and concerned residents, descended upon Town Hall. The phones were blowing up. There was little we could share, as we were directed by the State of Florida to refer all questions to the Department of Health. For the media, and some of our residents, that wasn’t good enough. I quickly mobilized my team to coordinate messaging with the State so we could stay in our lane, yet still provide the public with factual information. We supplemented the efforts of our Town’s only PIO with help from a respected local crisis management and communications team. We made it a habit to coordinate our messaging with the Joint Information Center at the Florida Department of Emergency Management.

Our Mayor declared a state of emergency. This cleared the way for the Town Administration to quickly spend money on emergency supplies and hire services, like a major deep clean of Town facilities. We found it helpful to have the cleaning vendor provide us with a report of exactly what was done and what cleaning agents were used so we could share that information with the public in our efforts to be transparent.

We also found it helpful to have our Town Attorney explain to the public exactly why the Town could not release the identity of the employee to the public. We check on our sick employee regularly by phone and the entire Town is praying for her speedy recovery.

Finally, while we live in a digital world, many of our residents are elderly and still prefer the telephone. We made sure our Town Hall telephone greeting was updated with the same information available on our website. The Town quickly moved to organize a live, emergency Telephone Town Hall meeting to allow residents to ask questions to medical professional and the Town without having to leave home. We had more than 1200 callers on the line at once for the Telephone Town Hall event that included the head of our local Health Department, two local medical Doctors, myself, the Mayor, and Town Attorney.


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