Communicating about COVID-19—and convincing people to vaccinate—has been almost as difficult as overcoming its contagion. Traditionally, public education campaigns have been critical to fighting pandemics and scourges like polio ever since public health authorities began their work in the nineteenth century. Communicating has been the key to the success or failure of public health efforts around infectious diseases, and our inability to do it well so far with COVID-19 is as dangerous as the virus itself.
When authorities fail to communicate facts consistently and provide united “what you can do” next steps, people fill the void with “what they heard,” which is not necessarily based on scientific facts. When those people are politicians and not infectious disease or public health experts, messages about the disease are not simply “mixed”; they often become jumbled or completely in conflict. We have even seen Twitter become viewed as a “clinical journal go-to source” for many, where tweets and retweets become “scientific exchange.” We have also seen public officials feature cultural and racial biases in their COVID-19 messages that have led to confusion and stoked hate. Pandemic communications have spiraled out of control. Under these conditions, it is challenging for researchers and doctors with knowledge and expertise to regain the public’s attention and reinforce faith in the scientific process.
What can we do to reestablish belief in science? It’s complex.
- Start with “what we know.” We don’t know everything. Facts are changing daily. Public health experts learn more every hour. It is vital that we in the United States and worldwide get a handle on conveying clearly what we know and what we don’t know. Those who are communicating on this issue, even peripherally, need to base their language on facts from authoritative public health officials dealing directly with the disease and vaccination policy. We must enlist scientists who know how to communicate with the public to step forward and take charge of COVID-19 messaging.
- Separate fact from opinion. We must recognize that self-appointed experts likely do not have the clinical expertise to comment authoritatively. Those of us advising on policies must work to ensure that their comments are clearly labeled as “informed opinion” and work with editors and reporters—hungry for a new angle on this attention-getting subject—to take pains to separate opinion and speculation from scientific fact. When editors and producers run with a story, scientists need to confirm accuracy and demand corrections when accuracy is not achieved.
- Seek authoritative voices. Epidemiologists, virologists, infectious disease experts, and others plumb data for insights on infection rates and vaccination effectiveness. The public should look to these reliable sources of scientific information before solidifying their opinions. Federal and state public health leaders and vaccination site managers need to agree on messaging and speak with one voice. Conflicting, competing voices add to the confusion and undermine scientific authority.
Science has always mattered. Now, it matters more than ever. And yet, we have seen the voice of science diminished by speakers with conflicting agendas competing for the public’s ear.
Scientists can regain societal trust; however, they must learn to work the platforms consumers use to obtain information. In a fast-moving crisis, when information evolves, scientists must recognize that they need to hone their communication skills and be savvy in securing public trust. While this will force many in science to step outside their comfort zone, it can and must happen. Scientists are known for creating miracles.