As the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across the nation and the globe two years ago, communities had to not only process, but quickly respond to, what was happening with very limited information about the virus.
Two researchers at New Mexico State University partnered with colleagues in Wyoming and Utah to study these responses and identify some strategies to help communities be more prepared during humanitarian disasters.
Barry Brewer, associate professor of supply chain management, and Ali Mchiri, a doctoral student in the NMSU College of Business, took part in a study that examined the preparation and humanitarian response to the pandemic as it was unfolding in the United States and across the world. Other members of the research team included Corey Billington, entrepreneur in residence at the University of Wyoming, and Clark Pixton, assistant professor of global supply chain at Brigham Young University.
The group started their studies by breaking down how people responded in innovative ways and noting what we could learn from that moving forward.
“Our first phase of the research involved a group of MBA students at BYU that canvassed the internet, looked at published articles, press releases, or anything that would give indication of how we responded to COVID-19,” said Brewer. “Based on our initial research we decided we would focus on two different responses: face coverings, a very simple response, and pop-up hospitals or increased ICU capacity.”
As more lives became deeply and abruptly affected by the deadly virus, the researchers said it was important to evaluate the timing of the response. “It’s not only the impact or the magnitude of the crisis, but how soon you respond,” Mchiri said. “The time of the response really matters, because we’re talking about life-or-death situations. The importance of how to respond in terms of time, efficiency, and effectiveness of the response really matters in this research.”
The research group conducted 24 hours of interviews with 18 organizations in multiple countries to compile information from each experience. Among those were organizations from El Paso, as the city was once seen as an epicenter of COVID-19, with the high number of virus-related deaths, and lack of available resources – especially at the hospitals.
“When you look at hospitals, they’re a hard thing to stand up. We saw this all over the country, and this happened in El Paso as well. The thing about a hospital is that you can create an ICU room, but a room doesn’t help you unless you have a ventilator, a trained nurse or trained doctor, pharmaceuticals, a way to manage records,” Brewer said. “It’s a very complex system and you can’t just put up a tent and say, ‘Hey we’re going to take care of people,’ because it just doesn’t work that way.”
Brewer also explained that, because this was a global crisis, other states that were hit hard would need and request nurses from El Paso, which left a depleted number of medical personnel to respond and care for the surge in COVID-19 patients.
Looking at the increase of pop-up hospitals and ICU capacity, the group’s research findings considered all the resources involved when it comes to the needed medical care response.
“When you talk about a hospital, these are resources that require education, training and refinement,” Brewer said. “It’s something that you must think of in advance for it to really be effective.”
In terms of face coverings, researchers found crowdsourcing to be an interesting theme. Many community members tapped into help in any way they could, whether it meant creating homemade face coverings or providing materials needed to make them during the shortage of personal protective equipment.
“We had a project where there was a team that produced six million masks in the course of three months. The project was organized with several hospitals and a humanitarian organization that was associated with a church. They reached out to the community,” Brewer said. “We had grandmothers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons all pitching in to do work. So, you were able to not only tap the professional resources within the hospitals and humanitarian organizations, but you tapped the crowd. Crowdsourcing is a legitimate humanitarian response.”
The researchers found that preparation and planning, as opposed to waiting until the crisis hits and improvising, was key for all entities to consider, whether big or small.
“If you look at different sources, they’ll tell you that the pandemic is not over – this could happen again with a different magnitude, different crisis – so the more we prepare, the more we make our process resilient enough to respond to those crises,” Mchiri said.
An aim of this research is to serve the community by identifying potential solutions organizations could implement in preparation for future crises.
“One of the things we created is a process for emergency planners to look at potential crises and decide ‘What do I need to do to be ready for that?’” Brewer said. “We want to create a process for them to work through preparation and what kind of preparation needs to happen. When they feel a level of comfort, then we can stop and focus on other areas that we need to improve.
“We’ve created a playbook for emergency planners to be able to do that,” he continued. “Our goal is to now take the playbook and to roll it out to individuals in the humanitarian response area, work with them, and see how the playbook works with those organizations.”
The NMSU researchers said they have already begun the process of outreach to local non-profit organizations, and plan to work with each organization for a few months before moving forward.
“We want to demonstrate proof of concept – that it works – then we’ll be able to take that to a national conference or regional conferences and really have people understand how to do things and improve their preparation,” Brewer said.
Author: Tatiana Favela