March 11, 2021

National Academies Offers Emergency Response Guidance for COVID-19 Era

The Societal Experts Action Network (SEAN), a project of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, has produced a rapid expert consultation that includes evacuation planning, sheltering operations, and risk communication strategies for public officials confronting hazards and disasters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Titled Emergency Evacuation and Sheltering During the COVID-19 Pandemic, this document is an aid for updating disaster response plans with regard to the ongoing, widespread public health hazard of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the document, strategies for evacuation and related activities must account for the risk that evacuees from disasters such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and industrial accidents may inadvertently transmit or become exposed to SARS-CoV-2 until vaccination becomes more widespread among the population.

“To prepare for emergency events requiring evacuation, it is necessary to revise shelter planning and mass care operations, shelter staffing, and shelter design and operations with a focus on reducing virus transmission and ensuring safety,” the document states. “Developing effective public messaging is also critical during the pandemic and requires advance planning and familiarity with the needs and characteristics of the communities being served.”

The National Academies released an online interactive report overview to help officials understand the new guidance. The overview summarizes the document’s three main sections: strategies for evacuation planning during COVID-19, strategies for sheltering and mass care operations, and strategies for risk communication.

The evacuation planning section covers how to address the evacuated community’s support needs, including the barriers to evacuation imposed by COVID-19; how to plan transportation for evacuees; and strategies for issuing evacuation guidance that does not conflict with the need to avoid COVID-19 exposure. It also cautions that evacuation decision-making and processes may be delayed due to pandemic conditions and urges officials to consider how much advance warning is feasible.

The section on sheltering and mass care operations addresses how to plan for the community’s public sheltering needs—including the possibility that communities may need to provide greater public sheltering capacity while relying less on large congregate shelters—and how to design and operate shelters in ways that incorporate COVID-19 safety measures.

Finally, the section on risk communication covers how emergency planners should alert the community about the need and procedure for evacuation while avoiding risks related to COVID-19. The document stresses the importance of tailoring messages to the needs of specific audiences and delivering messaging in accessible formats. Officials will also find information regarding how to select channels to convey messaging and how to time message delivery so that community members receive adequate information with as much advance warning as possible.

Emergency Evacuation and Sheltering During the COVID-19 Pandemic is available for free download from the National Academies’ website. Additional information can be found in the National Academies’ Feb. 23 press release.