May 24, 2022

Pandemic Planning and Communication: Expectation vs. Reality

By Ed Rutkowski

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (May 24, 2022)—When many OEHS professionals were engaged in pandemic planning in the early 2000s, according to Dana Stahl, their focus was on preparing for a flu outbreak. As Stahl explained yesterday at AIHce EXP 2022, while the prospect of pandemic flu was terrifying—the 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 40 million people worldwide—much had been learned about the virus since then. Pandemic planners also assumed a flu vaccine could be developed within six months and that demand for the vaccine would create significant challenges in determining how to distribute it equitably. Public health interventions such as school closures would be difficult to achieve, they thought, and would probably last only for short durations.

Of course, the pandemic these planners prepared for didn’t occur, or at least it hasn’t occurred yet. The pandemic they got instead stemmed from a novel coronavirus about which nothing was known when it was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Schools not only were closed almost immediately; in many parts of the United States, they stayed closed for more than a year. The expectation that a safe, effective vaccine would be available within six months was largely borne out—an astounding success. But the anticipated demand never materialized, due at least in part to misinformation, some of it politically motivated. Against expectations, the main problems were distrust of the vaccine and disbelief in the seriousness or even the existence of the viral threat. As a result, vaccination levels in the U.S. never reached anticipated levels. Even now, more than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, only two-thirds of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to CDC.

Among the main problems that pandemic planners hadn’t considered was the extreme difficulty of communicating effectively. Stahl, the safety and health manager for the Seattle Public Library and the author of Health and Safety in Emergency Management and Response, listed several reasons for the communication struggles, including distrust of government and the ease with which social media allowed individuals who were not experts or who wished to spread misinformation to reach a huge following.

Stahl suggested that communication during the pandemic has not fully accounted for the effects of changing recommendations from scientific authorities on a public that has an incomplete understanding of the scientific method. While scientists expect recommendations to change as more data becomes available, the changes have confused the public and fostered distrust. The challenge for public health and OEHS professionals is how to change recommendations without losing credibility, Stahl said.

The respirator shortages at the beginning of the pandemic further complicated communication efforts, leading OEHS professionals to recommend actions that they never would have considered otherwise. “In all of our pandemic planning, we never considered that we would be recommending people wear cloth masks,” Stahl said. “In the end, we recommended it because it was the least bad option.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

Related: Read Dana Stahl’s article “After the Pandemic: Planning for a Better ‘Normal’” in the April 2021 Synergist. The SynergistNOW blog has published several posts about science communication, including “Communicating About Vaccines” (May 6, 2021), “New Research on Scientific Misinformation” (Aug. 17, 2021), and “Frequencies and Fact Boxes: Techniques in Science Communication” (September 30, 2021).

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the highlights page on AIHA’s website.