Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
With the first case of omicron confirmed in California and extra circumstances anticipated throughout the U.S., public well being officers who know the distinction between good and dangerous disaster communication say they can not afford to be quiet and wait till scientists know the way dangerous the brand new variant is earlier than they communicate out.
“We do not need to simply be silent on the matter, as a result of then that may trigger worry after which that may enable for misinformation to creep in,” says Elya Franciscus, the epidemiology operations supervisor for COVID-19 in Harris County, Texas.
There is a mantra in disaster communication: Be first, be proper, be credible. “A kind of is clearly being first,” says Crystal Watson, senior scholar on the Johns Hopkins Heart for Well being Safety. “So though we do not know an entire lot proper now, I feel it is essential to listen to from public well being officers.” That mentioned, being credible additionally means not giving info you will have to retract as extra is realized. Strolling that line might be very difficult, as U.S. well being officers realized initially of the pandemic once they underestimated the usefulness of masks in defending towards an infection.
“Typically these messages might be very definitive and never convey what the uncertainty is,” says Watson. The hazard of being too definitive is that you may be accused of flip-flopping later if new info necessitates new steering.
Learn how to get the message proper
This time, loads of native public well being departments across the nation are working onerous to get the message proper, says Adriane Casalotti of the Nationwide Affiliation of County and Metropolis Well being Officers. “We have now seen native well being departments being on the market, making an attempt to elucidate to of us what we do know, but in addition what we do not know — and what the timeframe is, and what the method is for studying extra.”
One official who’s getting out there’s Dr. Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, a specialist in infectious illnesses and the director of well being for town of St. Louis.
“The message is: There isn’t any must panic,” she says. “We nonetheless must study, we nonetheless want to attend for science to do its factor. However within the meantime, we’ve got instruments out there to maintain ourselves and our group secure. We have now secure and efficient vaccines — so exit and get one — we all know that masking works, we all know that social distancing works, and we all know that hand-washing works.”
Along with the “do not panic, do that as an alternative” message, Vish Viswanath, professor of well being communication at Harvard’s T.H. Chan College of Public Well being says Hlatshwayo Davis can be signaling to the group that she’s engaged and plans to maintain them up to date as scientists study extra in regards to the new variant. He says her method is “precisely what we’d like.”
“That sense of competence and motion — ‘we’re watching it, we’re on prime of it, we’ll work with you’ — it will not eradicate, however it can abate many issues,” he says.
Watson notes that the general public well being measures officers have already been recommending to guard towards delta and any SARS-CoV-2 variant — to get vaccinated and boosted, put on masks indoors in public areas, socially distance and wash your palms — “are nonetheless a good suggestion and are nonetheless going to be efficient towards this variant. We do not know the way that effectiveness will change, however we all know that these are nonetheless tried and true issues which have labored for different variants.”
Transparency is essential to gaining belief
It is also key to encourage folks to remain tuned as extra is realized, Viswanath says, with messages like this: ” ‘Listed below are the rules which have at all times labored, please take these actions, they may proceed to work. If we discover out that they do not work and there need to be modifications, we are going to let you know.’
“Speaking that sense of transparency is essential,” he says.
For Hlatshwayo Davis, how and when she conveys these messages can be essential. She’s finished COVID-19 city halls previously, taking viewers questions, and she or he likes that format.
“However I need to watch out about timing. I feel it’s extremely irritating to convene folks to inform them. ‘We do not know. We do not know. We do not know. We do not know.’ Proper?” she says. So her focus proper now’s utilizing social media platforms and connecting with native clergy and group teams — the type of trusted messengers folks flip to in occasions of uncertainty.
We nonetheless have quite a bit to find out about #Omicron. No must panic, we’ve got the instruments to remain secure:
✔️Get your vaccine, or booster if eligible
✔️Put on a masks appropriately particularly indoors
✔️Keep 6 toes aside in crowded areas
✔️Wash your palms typically
✔️Advocate for international vaccine fairness
— Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, MD, MPH (@MatiH_ID) November 29, 2021
When there’s extra details about omicron to dig into, then her division will “have a city corridor the place we will have some actually good dialogue,” Davis says, including “I am hoping that may have the ability to be completed inside the subsequent two to 3 weeks.”
Know your viewers
Vishwanath notes that public well being officers are addressing a blended viewers. Not everyone seems to be feeling panicked by the information of omicron. Lots of people are detached — or actively resistant — to the concept that there is a new variant of concern. And that may make communication more durable. “It is a troublesome factor as a result of individuals are drained, individuals are fatigued and it’s important to perceive the place they’re coming from,” he says.
After all, loads of well being division staffers have their very own pandemic fatigue. And getting the correct message out is just one a part of their mission. Additionally they have to be able to establish and monitor future omicron circumstances, whereas coping with the present load of delta circumstances.
“We’ve not actually slowed down — we have by no means stopped testing, we have by no means stopped vaccinating,” says Franciscus in Harris County. “So it is easy for us to type of change from, ‘Oh, possibly it regarded like we had been hitting a low level and we may possibly begin slowing down’ to, ‘OK, new variant — let’s ramp up once more.’ “
She says her county well being division has a plan prepared if and when omicron is recognized domestically.
Hlatshwayo Davis in St. Louis says the general public well being toolkit is much more sturdy than it was when the pandemic started.
“Are we actually on the similar place with this new variant as we had been in March to 2020? The reply is not any,” she says.
“We have now speedy exams out there, we’ve got finished contact tracing for 2 years — we all know what works and does not work. We have now secure and efficient vaccines, the flexibility to offer them now for kids above the age of 5. This places us leaps and bounds [beyond] the place we had been,” she says.