After a sharp spike in U.S. COVID cases during the summer, the government was again caught flat-footed, failing to provide Americans with the resources and information needed to make smart choices and stay healthy.
In an effort to get ahead of a potential tripledemic this winter of COVID-19, flu, and RSV that could overwhelm hospitals, health officials have re-booted an important program: making COVID test kits free again. Those kits will be available by mail to households starting September 25.
Next comes the hard part: convincing enough people to get the kits and then persuading them to follow quarantine guidelines if they or their family members get sick.
This is not the time to roll out stale messaging delivered by a carousel of health officials trying to convince the public to get the test kits. Americans are weary of being told to keep their guard up against a disease that many view as more of an inconvenience than a threat. If the sales pitch to get the kits is off, health officials may find that the test kits no longer serve as an effective public health tool. Instead, they could become another partisan symbol of perceived government overreach, further impeding people’s freedom to live as they want.
In short, we have a messaging challenge ahead of us, and if we haven’t taken to heart the lessons learned during the worst early days of the pandemic, we’re doomed to repeat mistakes that cost lives.
How can we be more thoughtful about containing COVID and other dangerous diseases? To generate greater public compliance for fighting an endemic disease, communicators must provide a credible and compelling case of the risk of inaction and convince people that ignorance – of not knowing your infection status – is greater than the cost of knowing. These can be very high bars to clear since people have different thresholds for risk and for being informed.
It’s likely we won’t clear those hurdles with the roll-out of the free test kits. Because the perceived risk of COVID-19 infection and severity is low, many people have adopted a “no test, no stress” attitude, especially in light of the potential personal disruption that COVID infection causes. It’s a dangerous direction and one of the reasons why we will continue to see cases spike.
For communicators to overcome the twin challenges of infection risk perception and status aversion, they must use convert communicators – people who are credible to specific audiences and have changed their views to support disease intervention. There is mounting data showing that people who identified as Republicans were far likelier to get infected by COVID and die from the disease than those from left-leaning political parties. Messaging that taps into this research could point to breaking through to these audiences.
Successful public health interventions rely on a strong majority of the population participating in disease mitigation efforts, which means spotlighting conservative voters who see the value of COVID testing and can serve as credible messengers to similarly ideologically inclined individuals. This is where digital storytelling, data visualization and engagement of champions outside of the health sector can be potent measures to build the case for supporting new public health tools.
It is also important to truly understand the pain points that different audience segments cite as reasons for not wanting to know their infection status and to provide targeted counterpoints. Most people can’t afford to miss work, even with a mild case, and families can be heavily impacted when a parent must choose between going to work or keeping their kids home. In these and other scenarios, the test result becomes the thing people may begin to dread more than the disease itself.
To ensure that people do not feel like they must choose between a host of the least bad options when COVID comes to their home, the government must consider new incentives for reporting positive test results and adhering to public health guidelines. These can range from reinstituting protected sick leave that was available as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) during the pandemic to encouraging more employers to use the tax credits available through the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) to reimburse for employee sick leave. Without putting these and other options on the table, people will feel penalized even when they do the right thing.