Sharing lessons from managing a COVID-19 factory outbreak

By Rachel Spencer-Henshall | 06 July 2020

Directors of public health across the country reading this I’m sure will all agree that whilst an outbreak of COVID-19 is something we all have plans in place for, the reality is a different matter entirely.

I’m incredibly proud of the way people in Kirklees have pulled together to help fight coronavirus locally and care for the most vulnerable people in our borough. This really has been the key for us from beginning. Without the support of community groups, volunteers, businesses, schools and so many more, we would not be in the position we are in today.

This togetherness was also the most important factor for us in managing an outbreak we recently had at a local meat processing factory and I’d like to share with you what we have taken from this experience in the hope that it will help other authorities.

We were thrust into the spotlight when, during the daily briefing on 18 June, Health secretary Matt Hancock, referred to Kirklees as an example of good practice in managing a local outbreak. A criticism we faced from some was that this was the first people knew about it. So it’s best that I rewind and explain what happened before the news was broadcast in the most public of forums.

We had been notified of an outbreak by Public Health England a week before the health secretary’s announcement. Our focus will always be to protect the health of residents and every decision we made had protecting local people at its heart.

Our focus straight away was to contain infections. We worked with Public Heath England, the business and their staff immediately. We brought in a mobile testing unit and implemented procedures seamlessly across authorities and agencies.

We offered tests to all staff, with those who tested positive then being asked to self-isolate. We helped the national Test and Trace programme to then work with staff to trace people they had been in contact with and then asked those people to self-isolate for 14 days.

As with a lot of workforces, English was not everyone’s first language. Getting important information accurately translated into different languages was a crucial part of keeping staff informed.

In total, 165 members of staff tested positive but by working so closely with the business and Public Health England to trace people who might have been at risk, we believe we were able to significantly reduce the amount of people who contracted the virus. Thankfully, no one who has tested positive as part of this outbreak became seriously ill. 

This was partnership working at its best and I would advise anyone else managing a similar situation to strike up close relationships especially with the business or workplace involved. In both significant outbreaks we’ve had, businesses have gone beyond the requirements on testing and temporarily closing their operations which will have all helped to contain outbreaks.

The biggest challenge we then faced was getting the balance right between protecting public health and sharing public information and we’ve taken a lot from this experience. From a public health perspective, we were already in a stable position. We were testing all the staff and tracing anyone who had been in contact with them. The efficiency of our response was the reason why the Government had praised us and partner organisations in the first place.

We knew that disclosing the location of the outbreak wouldn’t help combat the spread of infection. We also want all Kirklees businesses to act in the same responsible way as this one had done. As we sought the cooperation and coordination of all the partners involved and focused on continuing infections, we had not informed the wider community before it was announced on national television. Naturally, local people wanted to know more and sooner.

We are an organisation that listens to our residents and learns from our experiences. When we took a step back following the outbreak to look at how we could manage an outbreak differently – we looked at the communication of it.

As one of the first local authorities to manage the communications of a local COVID-19 outbreak in this way, we have learnt a lot and we want to share this with you.

Residents wanted to know more so we developed a protocol which focuses on working closely with Public Health England and any business or organisation that does have an outbreak. We wanted to use that cooperation to give local people as much information as possible at the earliest opportunity.

We have since managed another outbreak at a workforce in Batley – on a smaller scale. We implemented our new communications protocol in partnership with Public Health England and a local bed factory that had eight confirmed COVID-19 cases.

All three organisations worked together to provide as much information as possible, at the earliest opportunity and we proactively released those messages.

Local people knew where the outbreak was, how many people had tested positive and we answered every question people asked us about the previous outbreak in a clear and concise Q&A.

Residents quickly thanked and praised us for this and, for me, this is a good example of how listening and working with residents and partners improves us as an organisation and as a borough.

The lessons we have learnt from this will now feed into our broader communications and engagement plan to help people understand and trust the Test and Trace system moving forward - with outbreaks not very likely to become more commonplace.

My advice to anyone else in this position is to be proactive, clear, concise and to work side-by-side with all organisations and communities involved.

Rachel Spencer-Henshall is strategic director of  public health at Kirklees MBC

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