Taking Lessons from COVID-19 into the Future

By Laurie W. Huang

With the advent of universal vaccine eligibility for those 12 and older, there was a dramatic decrease in COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths. The pandemic isn’t over yet though; the Delta variant is surging particularly among unvaccinated pockets of the population in the US and abroad. The Delta variant is also causing concern for schools and parents, made more difficult by governors actively fighting against mask mandates and vaccination requirements.

Epidemiologists and infectious disease experts are already trying to identify likely culprits of the next pandemic, which could be anything from another zoonotic agent to a virus we already live with that has mutated to become more virulent. What the experts do agree on is that another pandemic is to be expected. We just don’t know when it will strike.

However, with the right preparedness, we don’t have to be caught off guard again the way we were with COVID-19. COVID-19 pushed our system to its limits, but it has also taught us many valuable lessons that, with the right implementation, can safeguard us from the same level of devastation that COVID-19 has caused.

Cohesive Messaging is Key

From the very first days of the pandemic, the messaging about COVID-19 was confusing and at times, contradictory. President Trump’s attempts to downplay the virus clashed with CDC warnings about the severity of COVID-19 and how quickly it could spread. Repeated comparisons with the flu led Americans to assume COVID-19 would not be as deadly as it soon proved to be.

Masks bore the greatest brunt of the inconsistent messaging, as the public was advised that masks did very little to stop transmission, that masks were very effective, that double masking was the way to go, or that some masks made the virus even more transmissible. This uncertainty not only discouraged mask wearing among many Americans, but it also led to a loss of trust in public health institutions.

Take Home Point: When the public looks to authority figures for guidance in times of crises, conflicting messaging only divides us. To respond effectively to the next pandemic, we all need to be on the same page, working with the same knowledge, and toward the same goal. We also need to be more transparent when communicating about uncertainty. A coherent, effective, and consistent messaging platform from all levels of government and top public health authorities will help achieve that.

Trust Science

The pandemic quickly became a political cudgel for both Democrats and Republicans. President Trump openly voiced doubt about the efficacy of social distancing and masks, while also espousing unfounded “cures” for the coronavirus such as hydroxychloroquine. The blatant distrust in science demonstrated by the President undermined public health efforts to contain the pandemic for months, by which point tens of thousands of Americans had already died.

These consequences are still being felt now as vaccination efforts are targeting the most vaccine hesitant communities. Many Americans are choosing not to get vaccinated, citing distrust in the scientific process that led to the creation of vaccines. The expedited authorization process of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were a source of concern for many Americans who doubt the vaccine’s safety due to what they perceived as rushing of the clinical trials.

Take Home Point: Rebuilding public trust in science will take time, but it is critical for creating a more effective pandemic response for the future. We must work on ways to close the gap between the scientific community and the public, to make scientific knowledge more accessible and easier to understand.

Build the Social Safety Nets Now

When stay-at-home orders lasted longer than expected, millions of Americans were furloughed or laid off, becoming dependent on the unemployment safety net to support themselves and their families. As the weeks went by, unemployment beneficiaries had no recourse other than to hope that Congress would continue extending unemployment claims. Others, faced with the choice of paying the bills or social distancing, chose to continue going to work despite the risk.

There was no system in place to deal with this sudden mass layoff of millions of workers. There was no system that would keep workers safely at home instead of risking infection to maintain their income. While help ultimately came in the form The Families First Coronavirus Response Act; the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act; and the American Rescue Plan, for many families it did not come quickly enough.

Take Home Point: Paying people to stay home was suggested as a potential social distancing-enforcement policy. This could be an important tool in containing a future pandemic much more quickly than we saw with COVID-19. Policymakers should consider enacting similar programs now to prepare for future economic downturns.

Engage in Conscientious Reporting

The majority of Americans receive scientific news from general media outlets, such as mainstream news companies or social media, rather than dedicated scientific sources. Mainstream news plays an important role in translating jargon-heavy, oftentimes unintelligible published findings into narratives that are easily understood by a general audience. This means news outlets must have a responsibility to be conscientious in their representation of scientific findings.

Reporting on health-related news can be difficult, especially when scientific knowledge is constantly evolving. As more research emerges, seemingly contradictory reporting gives the impression that scientists don’t agree or worse, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Moreover, much of the reporting on COVID-19 was highly politicized.

Take Home Point: News outlets should take steps to remind their audience that science is a continuous, iterative process that often reaches new conclusions over time. Breaking news before there is a complete understanding of a story is a difficult balancing act. Drawing attention to misinformation, sensationalized headlines, and misleading reporting will only hurt us more.

Where Does this Leave Us?

Many of these lessons may feel like common sense, but they need to be actively put to work to prepare us for the next pandemic. Preparedness is key for any disaster, and public health is no different. We have the chance to prevent this magnitude of loss of life in the future, but only if we call for the necessary changes in our systems and institutions. Another pandemic may be coming, but this time we can be ready.

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