Informing The Public When COVID-19 Guidelines Keep Changing

May 27, 2020

Remember when doctors and public health officials were telling people they didn't need to wear masks? On February 29, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Powell tweeted, "They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus."

But early last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course and recommended people wear a cloth facing covering while in public. In fact, since April 19, you can’t go the grocery in Pennsylvania without a mask.

Initially, it was thought that children who become infected by the coronavirus don't get as ill as adults, but there have been increased reports of kids developeing a rare and very serious inflammatory syndrome after contracting the virus.

Because COVID-19 is a very new disease,  it’s normal for advice and guidelines to change, said Elizabeth Felter, a health communication researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.

“It’s really challenging from a communications standpoint, particularly if people aren’t expecting to keep hearing different things,” she said.

Felter said it is incumbent on public health officials to communicate information that’s based on the most recent science.  This includes modeling current recommendations, like wearing masks in public and not shaking hands.

But keeping everyone up to date is complicated by the fact that clear, consistent and frequent messaging is necessary for the public to follow best practices.

“It’s exhausting for people trying to keep up with the latest information, it’s exhausting for all the people trying to communicate the latest information,” said Felter. “Trying to be all in it together is going to be our best way through.”

That’s why Felter is a fan of the saying “My mask protests you. Your mask protects me.” But one aspect of public health communication she believes should change is the use of the term “social distancing,” in reference to recommendation that people stay six feet apart from one another.

Felter instead prefers “physical distancing;" because the pandemic has caused many emotional, financial and professional challenges, she said its important for people to be physically distant but socially connected.

“I think on of our worst missteps was when we in the beginning was calling this whole thing ‘social distancing.’ Really, the very last thing we want is to be socially distant,” she said.

The World Health Organization modified its language months ago, but the term has stuck. Felter acknowledged that it's difficult to change this kind of public health messaging once its use has become so widespread.

“But I think we need to try," she added.