Costs racking up for local governments on COVID-19 messaging

Local governments in the D.C. area are spending tens of thousands of dollars on getting messages out to the public related to the COVID-19 pandemic, records obtained by FOX 5 show.

The Fairfax County Health Department paid more than $125,000 to a consulting company for a 30-second public service announcement and an accompanying media campaign, according to an invoice for the work made available by a public records request.

In Maryland, Howard County spent nearly $22,000 for a telephone townhall. Officials there say it was aimed at better reaching older residents who are less likely to use the internet with important information about the pandemic.

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Contracts show Montgomery County has spent more than other local jurisdictions on a public information workforce, despite having six full-time staffers in the county's public information office.
The county has hired three people on a part-time basis to write and edit press releases, target media to communities that are difficult to reach and lead a crisis communications campaign.

In March, Montgomery County hired longtime reporter and public information officer Julie Parker through her firm Julie Parker Communications at a rate of $290 an hour. In June, the county renegotiated Parker's contract to cap her weekly earnings at $5800.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, the county's director of emergency management and homeland security, told FOX 5 the communications expenses are appropriate and that they would likely be reimbursed by FEMA or through the $183 million the county received through the CARES Act.

"Crisis communications is different than public relations or media relations or even normal outreach," said Stoddard, in justifying the expenses.

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Stoddard said one of the ways officials are getting the message about testing and contact tracing out to the Latino community, which is disproportionately impacted by the virus, is through translations and the messaging app Whatsapp.

"Communications is a necessary and vital portion of testing of food delivery of all of those things. Not all of our community can go on to our county webpage and just access all the information there," Stoddard said.