Amy Burnett dispenses public health information in a pinch

CDC's National Contact Center rose to the challenge of answering questions about H1N1 during the outbreak's peak

Amy Burnett became director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Contact Center, also known as CDC-INFO, several months before the H1N1 flu outbreak. The center was a focal point for members of the medical profession and public who were seeking information. She rose to the occasion with a solid plan for taking care of her employees while getting people the information they needed as quickly as possible.

At CDC-INFO, we collaborate closely with CDC groups that manage Web communications and social media. We want to make sure we are providing clear, accurate and relevant content and that the content is integrated and consistent across the channels of communication.

When the H1N1 outbreak began in April 2009, our inquiry volume increased by 500 percent in the first days of the outbreak. We were all working 18- to 20-hour days to try to get a handle on it. We had planned for a surge event, and now we were putting it into practice. It was an exciting time.

The H1N1 outbreak was my first big public health event as director of CDC-INFO. I had been on the job for about six months. My priority was to take care of my team, making sure they were trained and had the information they needed.

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Our advice had to be targeted and accurate. The doctors and nurses who were calling us primarily wanted information on H1N1's mode of transmission and period of incubation. The members of the public mostly wanted to know what they should do if their child was sick. Both groups asked about vaccines. People were worried. Some people called repeatedly.

The coordination between CDC-INFO and CDC’s other communications units worked well. When the CDC Web channel got an update on H1N1, we got the same update.

One of the lessons learned was that CDC-INFO’s telecommunications infrastructure could handle the additional inquiry loads. Usually, we might get 1,200 to 1,400 calls a day, but at the peak we were getting 5,000 a day. The technology worked.

However, there were staffing challenges. In those first days, some people who called CDC-INFO got a busy signal or were put on hold for the 18-minute maximum. That is why I was keen to get butts in seats. Typically, we have about 80 to 90 staff members trained and ready to answer the calls, but at the height of the H1N1 outbreak, we had about 200 people. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and other federal agencies provided emergency surge staff. It was the first time we had tested those federal partnerships.

I’m really proud that we are a 24/7 train that is always available and never stops. You can call, write or e-mail, and you will get a response.

Overall, I would say we handled it really well. Of course, there were some disappointments. It would have been nice to get up and rolling in one day instead of four to seven days, and we're looking at ways to do even better in the future.

Today, we are still activated for H1N1, even though the call volume is low. We are getting calls for seasonal flu, AIDS, vaccines, hundreds of topics. We have content that answers the majority of questions. If we don’t have the answer, we will work with CDC colleagues to find it.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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