Why we are still in a pandemic

dr. Ashish Jha has a theory as to why, after two years and counting, the Covid-19 pandemic is still not over.

According to Jha, the White House’s Covid Response Coordinator, scientists and public health officials have largely nailed the medical response to the pandemic: As experts have learned more about the coronavirus, the US has been constantly adjusting its safety guidelines and treatment plans accordingly.

The problem, Jha said last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado, is that those experts often don’t communicate effectively about those shifts — leading many Americans to distrust science and turn to social media for health information rather than publicly appointed doctors and doctors. scientists.

“We got the biological science right, but we don’t have the social science right,” Jha said.

Indeed, the medical response to Covid has been impressive: In record time, scientists have created multiple highly safe Covid vaccines that are particularly effective in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death. New booster shots targeting specific Covid strains – for even stronger protection – are also on their way to federal approval.

For those who are particularly ill from Covid infection, there are several therapeutic drugs currently on the market, with more in the pipeline. Jha directly attributed this progress to excellent communication within the scientific community.

“The sheer amount of collaboration that took place in the scientific community was unprecedented,” Jha said, adding, “That was a major reason why we got vaccines and treatments, and all that scientists trusted each other to use. [each other’s] inform wisely.”

But frequent changes to the country’s safety guidelines, especially in the onset of the pandemic, have torpedoed many people’s confidence in official messages surrounding Covid – causing them to interpret a large amount of information from public health experts as inaccurate. That distrust may keep some people from getting vaccinated even today, and the country’s lagging vaccination rate is a major reason the virus is still circulating.

Jha highlighted a particularly frustrating fact: the country’s first Covid guidelines weren’t even based on the coronavirus itself. The virus was too new for scientists to know much about it, so public health authorities based their recommendations on their knowledge of a seemingly similar virus: the flu.

The inability – or reluctance – to communicate that fact in those early pandemic days could have far-reaching consequences, Jha said: “I think we should have said, ‘We don’t know how this virus is spreading. model is flu. This is how flu spreads and that’s why we’re saying this now.”

Such an approach could have left more room for experts to change guidelines while maintaining public confidence, Jha said.

“You don’t get it right on the first draft,” he explained. “I think that’s okay. But you have to explain to people why you changed your mind and why you were so sure about it at first… Explaining your level of trust and then explaining how you’re going to verify are important parts of the message .”

A similar pattern played out when Covid vaccines became available to the general public in early 2021, Jha said: Because public health experts assumed most Americans would want to get vaccinated immediately, they focused their posts on what they didn’t already know about the vaccines, instead of what they did know.

“Most scientists went out and said, ‘We have no idea whether these vaccines reduce transmission or not.’ And most Americans heard, ‘These vaccines don’t reduce transmission,'” Jha said. “Because we weren’t sure, we started with ‘We don’t know,’ which was assumed to mean ‘no’.”

Going forward, Jha said, public health officials — including himself — should make concerted efforts to put everything on the table. Often, he said, people don’t necessarily need security. They need a judgment from a trusted source.

“Science is a journey. Science is a process,” said Jha. “And I don’t think that’s been communicated clearly to people.”

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