Editorial: Say what? Public health leaders must improve their messaging on the pandemic
By Susan N. Gareis
In recent weeks, the public health community has shown great concern about the growing Covid-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global health emergency in February, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement calling on the public to take precautions to avoid the coronavirus. The World Health Organization declared two epidemiological phases of the pandemic on Sunday. The first, which began in Iran and has spread to at least 80 countries, has killed more than 13,000 people and is expected to continue through the end of March. In the latter phase, which has only spread outside of China, the virus has killed more than 150.
The CDC statement has triggered a rash of news releases that feature interviews with experts on the topic. The American College of Physicians announced that it had asked its members to provide input on the best way to communicate about the disease. Public health experts are using Twitter, Facebook and other popular platforms to promote their messages. There is even an annual “State of the Science on Health” publication about the state of science on the pandemic.
This flurry of activity is welcome, some say. The pandemic is one of the worst public health crises in recent history, and it is important to have the voices of the public health community heard. But the public health community has taken great strides in the public health arena, making improvements to communication.
The problem is that the public does not have a good understanding of how we can address the pandemic without causing more deaths. The public health community is not doing a good job conveying its message. That’s unfortunate, because communication is everything when it comes to combating the pandemic. According to a recent Gallup poll, 84 percent of the public trusts health officials and physicians to tell them the truth about the dangers of the disease and how to avoid them; 83 percent trust local officials and 76 percent trust government officials to do the same.
Public health professionals recognize that this trust is essential for getting the