San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in the city Tuesday amid heightened concerns of the new coronavirus’ spread around the globe.
But why has the city made this declaration when there aren’t any confirmed cases among city residents?
In the interview below, Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of S.F.’s Department of Emergency Management, answers that question. She also addresses many other questions and concerns residents may have as the city prepares for a potential outbreak of the pneumonia-like virus.
Why has the city declared a state of emergency?
We declared the emergency in order to prepare for what we feel could occur in the future in San Francisco. It is primarily about preparedness. It also allows us to be better poised for financial assistance and reimbursement should that become available.
What are you preparing for?
We are following the global situation with coronavirus and we are preparing so that we can respond if there is an outbreak in San Francisco.
What are the triggers for increased action from the department?
It’s not my place to comment. The Department of Public Health is working closely with the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] and WHO [World Health Organization] to prepare for the actions that would be appropriate depending on what happens. Our focus is on preparedness, and the process of preparedness. We are really focused on engaging the whole community and taking into consideration impacts on the whole community. The situation with this disease is very dynamic and it’s changing on a daily basis.
What has changed since the SARS outbreak in terms of S.F.’s response to a virus outbreak?
We have experience responding both to SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009. What I would say is every emergency is a little bit different and when you’re talking about a disease outbreak, each has its own characteristics. The need to prepare and try to stay ahead of it is really what we’re looking at here.
What can residents do to prepare?
The basic public health message includes washing your hands, sneezing into your arms, getting a flu shot and staying home if you’re sick. The other thing is really thinking about how you would prepare for any emergency. Thinking about contingency plans for your family and looking out for loved ones. The message we put out for all those things whether it’s an earthquake or power shutoff, it doesn’t vary that much. Panic doesn’t help anyone. We are committed to the public to provide the best and most timely information we possibly can.
Should people be stocking up on food and masks?
No. Masks are not effective in preventing someone from getting the disease, but they can prevent a sick person from spreading it. It’s important for health care workers to have masks because they’re at the highest risk of exposure. There’s no anticipation at this point that we’re going to recommend that everyone buy masks.
The best thing to do is have your emergency kit. I hope everyone in the Bay Area has a kit and some reserves for any emergency such as an earthquake. But we’re not suggesting people stockpile extra food.
What’s most concerning to you about coronavirus?
I don’t necessarily have an answer. I’m not focused on the “what if,” the worst case scenario. I’m focused on getting us prepared as much as possible so no matter what we face, we’re in the best position we can be, so we can move forward. I’m so pleased we’re taking a proactive approach to this disease and not waiting to be reactive.
Are there other cities San Francisco is looking to for guidance to prepare?
We have other cities calling us. San Francisco is really leading the way in announcing a state of emergency and doing the advance planning. As a region, we are all talking to one another from a public health perspective. We will be aligning our plans as we move forward.
How are you controlling the dissemination of information?
We’re working around the clock. [Our Emergency Operations Center has] been activated for six weeks now and a large focus has been on communication, both internal and external. We want to make sure we are communicating to everyone the information they need in a way in which they can get it and understand it.
If you want general information on what we’re doing as a city, visit the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s website at sfdph.org or the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management’s website sf72.org. The information on these sites will mirror each other.
If folks have a specific health question, they should be speaking to their doctors, and in addition, the city’s 311 line is set up to triage coronavirus questions 24/7. If a person is sick and needs to go to the hospital, 911 is another option.
We have been doing a lot of outreach in the Chinatown community. People are not going there, not because there’s a higher threat, but due to fear and discrimination. We want to remind people this isn’t a race-based disease.
What is the city doing to prepare?
The declaration gives us better ability to convene disaster works and gives us more flexibility as a city to reassign people to other jobs. We are focused on preparing to provide care and shelter and the potential need for accommodations should congregate living become an issue and we need to have less congregate living.
Secondly, there’s the community branch, which is a big part of preparedness that involves coordinating everyone you can imagine, including schools, both private and public, universities, community-based organizations, the interfaith community, neighborhood groups, businesses, large and small, travel, tourism. You can understand that’s a heavy lift and takes a lot of coordination.
Anything to add?
It’s all about preparedness. The most overlooked part about preparedness is looking out for your neighbors, your friends, your family. We know the elderly are at most risk of getting sick from this disease.