In her latest Letter from America, Lorri Zipperer explores the lack of coordination that is undermining the current US response to the COVID-19 crisis and preparation for the next phase. Letter from America is the latest in a Patient Safety Learning blog series highlighting new accomplishments and patient safety challenges in the United States.
Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” is an American musical set in 1900’s River City Iowa. First seen on Broadway and then as a 1960s film, the story rests on hope that arrives in town on the shoulders of a con man, Harold Hill. There are lots of themes we could track from this story into our times today – but one scene in particular is on point for this month’s letter.
Hill distributes music and instruments to his students with instructions to practice on their own and they come together to play for the town. Let’s just say it doesn’t go so well. Although committed to the goal, the kids can’t play the music without solid instruction, synchronised development, collective practice and effective leadership. A band needs to follow the same score of the same tune in order to MAKE music that works.
The COVID response in the US seems to have put patients, the public and clinicians in a situation similar to that of the River City kids. States, schools and cities seem to be playing from different arrangements of the same tune resulting in a lack of coordination and consistency across the country. The result is not just noise but profound failure. Ed Yong in The Atlantic summarises the systemic discord that has contributed to an estimated 183,000 deaths in the US. He highlights how despite ample warnings the country was unprepared for a pandemic, and suggests it remains unprepared for the next one. Weaknesses in leadership, testing, state policies, data capture and dissemination, public health infrastructure and information inaccuracies set the stage for the spread of COVID. Lack of respect for science, ingrained bias against people of colour and an ineffective health system perpetuated much of what could have been prevented.
The situation Yong describes in his article has led the USA to a patchwork response to the pandemic. Across the country a variety of populations are being put at risk. For example, students and teachers at colleges and universities are having to navigate their way through the crisis – sorting through local concerns and statistics to devise a course that will serve their communities best while serving a mobile population of students who come from home to learn while potentially carrying or picking up the virus to take home or to their dorms. As examined in Kaiser Health News students arriving for classes are experiencing varying approaches to testing, hybrid online/in person class models and stay-at-home and masking orders. And should students become ill, universities may not be well equipped to keep those patients safe.
Strategies to address these problems from politicians, researchers and healthcare abound. There is a recognised need of a national policy that aligns efforts to manage the COVID situation. As noted in USA Today, countries that have had relative success in managing the virus, such as Germany and Denmark, have a collective approach to address the problem they have committed to. The article compares international responses to those of the US to illustrate gaps and highlight areas where coordination and collaboration are desperately needed to move the country’s effort forward.
Healthcare seems particularly suited to offer suggestions for improving the situation. The American Association of Medical Colleges recently published a guidance to set a direction for a safer future. The Way Forward on COVID-19: A Road Map to Reset the Nation’s Approach to the Pandemic outlines 11 recommendations to support and motivate the nation to adopt a systemic, collective plan to reset the country. Informed by expert insights from a variety of fields, the document shares actionable suggestions on topics such as testing improvement, national standards on face coverings and other safety protocols, and vaccine deployment planning. Suggestions include undertaking research to determine efficacy of face coverings to reduce transmission of COVID-19, distribution data to compare the impact of school reopening and designing a government-funded vaccine distribution and use process that involves a wide range of providers.
The Music Man ends with a rousing performance of “76 Trombones.” The kids in the band follow a course toward success, resplendent in full uniform, high stepping and proud, seamlessly working together. The families and townsfolk people beam with accomplishment and join in on the celebration of collective achievement. When will we be ready to take up our instruments and perform cohesively together with no one left behind due to having a different COVID-19 score?
About the Author
Lorri Zipperer is the principal at Zipperer Project Management in Albuquerque, NM. Lorri was a founding staff member of the US-based National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF). Lorri is an American Hospital Association/NPSF Patient Safety Leadership Fellowship alumnus and an Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) Cheers award winner.