On Monday, March 17th I had the distinct honor and pleasure to participate in an HHS (Department of Health & Human Services) sponsored pandemic exercise.
During this day-long `tabletop' exercise, representatives from the HHS, CDC, Homeland Security, State Department, State and local Health Departments, Print and broadcast journalism, and yes . . . three representatives of flu forums and flu blogs, plus representatives from CIDRAP and WebMd . . . worked through a 12 week pandemic scenario.
This was a fictional scenario with built in crisis points designed to evoke decision making by each person at the table. In many cases, there were no `right' answers, only tough choices . . . and of course, some twists and turns along the way.
Forrest Sawyer, former ABC correspondent, was the facilitator of this exercise, and didn't allow anyone to evade a question or avoid a decision.
The scenario was fictional, and so the details are unimportant. It was a test, and a good one, of how agencies would deal with various crises, and the media, all at the same time.
It was also a fascinating look inside at how these agencies work together, even when their agenda's don't precisely mesh, in a crisis. There were, as you might expect, bumps along the way.
That is what these exercises are designed to work out.
Something that struck me at this meeting was so obvious, it is easily missed.
These people, from the Secretary of the HHS on down, are all very human and likable. Were it not for their name tags or rank insignia on their uniforms, you'd never have guessed you were speaking with high ranking officials.
Simply put, the level of pomposity in that room was undetectable.
I came away believing that, whether I agree or disagree with specific policies or decisions they may make, these people are legitimately endeavoring to do the best they can to prepare the nation for a pandemic.
They work, however, within a framework of rules and regulations, and with budget constraints, that clearly frustrate them at times. Their jobs are not easy ones now, and will only become more difficult should a pandemic erupt.
And of course every decision they make will be publicized, analyzed, and most likely criticized along the way. It's not an enviable position to be in, yet they willingly shoulder this responsibility.
Because, quite frankly, someone has to.
And yes, before you ask, they all appear to take the threat of a pandemic seriously. Very seriously.
The decision to include the flu forums and Internet bloggers in this exercise was a bold one. I'm not sure that they know quite what to make of us yet, but they obviously believe they can't ignore us.
We are, in their words, `The New Media', and they are working out ways to work with us.
My thanks to Secretary Leavitt's office for inviting me into the inner sanctum for a day, and especially to Christina Pearson and Stephanie Marshall, who issued the invite and made sure I felt welcome.
To those to whom I had a chance to speak, thank you for your time and your courtesy. It was truly an honor to be invited.