More than two years into the pandemic, the relationship between scientifically rooted government agencies and a non-small portion of the American public remains fraught with misunderstanding. Even as the country pledged to lead with science over the course of the past two years, creating a handful of safe COVID-19 vaccines that work, any number of missteps led to a desecration of trust between the government and many of the people it seeks to protect.
This lack of confidence ultimately drove people to seek out information online that better aligned with their own opinions, regardless of whether or not they were rooted in reality. As a result, some 25 months after the initial March 2020 shutdown, the dissemination of health misinformation — around COVID-19 and its vaccines as well as any number of other health-related symptoms and conditions — continues unabated.
To a large extent, it’s understandable in hindsight. The world learned about this virus at the same time that most health experts (and health publishers) did, and quickly grew frustrated with the absence of concrete information about protecting themselves and their loved ones. And as that information became available, officials continually overestimated the level of healthcare literacy among the American people.
“The information was coming in rapidly and it often was preliminary. Science is not as black-and-white as most people think,” notes WebMD chief medical officer Dr. John Whyte. “It’s hard for them to understand why one month we may say we don’t need masks and the next month we say we do.”
And so in terms of health information, we find ourselves, in April 2022, in much the same place we were in April 2020: mistrustful, frustrated and cleaved down party lines.
Personal healthcare literacy was defined in August 2020 by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention as “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the country’s performance can only be described as abysmal, with a mere 12% of Americans displaying a proficient level of healthcare literacy.
Overlooking or minimizing this lack of comprehension made the task of conveying accurate health information an uphill climb from the outset: Health officials found themselves constantly frustrated by their inability to communicate in a manner that people could fully understand.
While public health officials and scientists did a fine job informing Twitter audiences and anyone else who actively sought out the most up-to-date data, many others were left behind. You can be as clear and forthright as conceivably possible, but your facts and figures can only have so much of an impact when the individuals receiving them lack sufficient health literacy.
David Bowen, head of policy and advocacy at Klick Health and a former policy director for the U.S. Senate Health Committee, believes that the communication effort isn’t beyond repair.
“We need to make sure that we communicate as communicators,” he says. “We need to communicate to people in ways that are going to resonate — not necessarily leading with the graph or technical information, but with making the emotional and narrative connection.”
Another communication mishap that fostered an environment in which health misinformation could thrive: the tendency of public health officials to communicate in a way that left Americans with a false sense of hope that the pandemic would soon be behind them.
“They made it sound like vaccines would prevent all infections, when that is never the case,” Whyte says. “They should have been more practical and realistic with the public: ‘Here’s what we know and here’s what we think you need to do right now.’ They should have admitted they didn’t know everything.”
Then there were the unfortunate word choices. In May 2020, former President Trump announced the creation of Operation Warp Speed, a plan to create, approve and distribute COVID-19 vaccines to people as quickly as possible. While the effort itself largely succeeded, the name itself played a huge role in sowing suspicion.
Fairly or not, many individuals interpreted the “Warp Speed” verbiage to suggest that the program’s top priority would be velocity, rather than the safety-mindedness that distinguishes the country’s public health approval process. The Biden administration immediately retired the moniker shortly after Inauguration Day.
This, of course, points to another issue that hobbled the communication effort: A consistent and puzzling lack of alignment between elected leaders and the nation’s public health officials. Individuals in different states — or even neighboring counties — were asked to follow different or contradictory guidelines.
“I don’t know whether this could be avoided, but having policies across the entire country, whenever possible, are generally easier to communicate,” says Carly Kuper, SVP of public relations and corporate communications at CMI Media Group and Compas.
Health agencies didn’t exactly rise to meet the communication challenges. When the CDC updated its guidelines in December 2021 around isolation time following exposure to the virus, its revised recommendations — all of a sudden, the requirement of a negative test was dropped — prompted laughter in some corners and scorn in others. This occurred as the country was under siege by the Omicron variant, no less.
So how does the country emerge from the health infodemic? Or perhaps the question should be: Can the country emerge from the health infodemic?
According to the American Medical Association, more than two-thirds of people get health information from at least one social media platform. The organization also notes that physicians are spending an increased amount of time attempting to reason with misinformed patients. As a result, the AMA has started to put pressure on social media platforms to strengthen their content moderation policies.
Sometimes overlooked amid the social media firestorm is the actual and potential utility of these platforms as a force for good. Medical misinformation spreads on social media, but so does good, factual information.
“Social media offers a voice and people are there wanting to learn,” Kuper stresses. “This is the time to be working with social media companies to be sharing truthful information.”
Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta is working to actively combat misinformation by employing armies of fact-checkers. Twitter has been labeling some misleading tweets and deleting others. The government itself recognizes medical misinformation as enough of a threat to public health to merit guidance and advisories from the Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.
Could the social media behemoths and the government do more? Absolutely. But it’s a start.
It goes without saying that stemming the tide of misinformation and building back confidence in scientifically focused federal agencies will not be easy feats. When asked about first steps, Whyte acknowledged that “it’s going to take a very long time. We need to admit the mistakes, we need to be transparent and we need to focus on health literacy and health numeracy.”
Bowen agreed, adding, “Communication should be viewed as an integral part of our pandemic response. Yes, we have to develop vaccines, but we also have to develop a vaccine against misinformation. That vaccine is effective, quick, resonant communication,” says Bowen.
Among the takeaways from the events of the last two years is that effective communication around public health is vital, during pandemics and otherwise. To stop health-related misinformation and maintain public trust in both health media and dispatches from public health agencies, communications need to be simplified and tonally recalibrated. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t take another public health crisis for communicators and consumers to find religion.