New county health official would warn public of outbreaks

Thursday, August 28, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:18 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Following a national trend, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health plans to hire a public information specialist this fall to streamline local communication about health emergencies and bioterrorism.

Instead of updating technology and infrastructure, the department has chosen to spend up to $43,179 of a $241,794 federal bioterrorism-prevention grant to pay for the position. This investment in public relations is hardly a surprise, said Robb Pilkington, an instructor at MU Extension Fire and Rescue Training Institute.

Pilkington said public relations personnel have been popular hires since a nervous federal government started pouring more money into anti-terrorism grants in 2001.

“Communication is extremely important,” said Pilkington, a nationally recognized expert in anti-terrorism planning. “If you don’t tell people what to do, they’ll go do things that could hurt them.”

Health department director Stephanie Browning said she hopes to fill the position by late November, easing the workload of department staff who have been operating a makeshift public relations network.

When the position is filled, Browning said, Columbia residents can expect to see more notices, warnings and information about disease outbreaks and prevention.

“The average citizen probably couldn’t care less about a public information specialist,” Browning said. “But when they want answers, they’ll want them fast and clear with the best information possible.”

The health department will pay the specialist out of an additional $90,050 in grant money it received this year, which was added to $151,744 the city has received annually since August 2002. Besides public relations, the money is paying for a regional planner and epidemiologist, supplies and an expansion of the local smallpox vaccination program.

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