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Univ. webinar on US response to COVID-19 pandemic

Science communication leaders Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Atul Gawande and Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal reflected on the governmental mishandlings over the past year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how Americans can better face future health crises. “If you’re going to fight a pandemic, it’s gotta be the entire country pulling together,” Fauci said during the discussion.

The panelists discussed the belief that conveying truthful and accessible information about scientific discovery and public health protocol is crucial during an unprecedented event like the COVID-19 pandemic. President Ron Liebowitz talked of the importance of the bridge between breakthroughs in basic scientific research and science communication. He emphasized the webinar’s focus on “the urgent challenge of explaining science to the public and the role of the news media in the fight against the pandemic.”

Professor Neil Swidey (JOUR) asked the panelists to identify lessons to be learned from the United States’s response to the pandemic. Rosenthal brought up the issue of “news deserts,” which are what she refers to as pockets of America in which there exists a lack of high quality, vetted information. According to Fauci, the adversity faced during the pandemic was especially potent since it came at a time of “intense divisiveness in society.” The pandemic has exposed the “impotence of science journalism in addressing the strengthening forces of pseudo-science and anti-science,” Gawande added.

The panelists also discussed how because consumers have access to clickbait headlines on social media platforms and highly politicized news forums as primary sources of information, misinformation and disinformation can spread rapidly and hurt numerous communities.

According to Rosenthal, there needs to be a fix to click-baiting on social media. She suggested that there should be an adjustment to the approach of science-based journalism. “Most of the people reading the New York Times know that COVID is real and [that] we need to wear masks,” she explained. “We should shift our strategy to small newspapers and small markets.”

Another issue, according to Fauci, is the tendency for consumers to either refute the public health protocol suggested in reliable news sources or perceive all scientific news they receive as infallible. Swidey introduces these groups of people as “under-believers” and “over-believers,” respectively. The example discussed by the panelists was the mask issue in the early days of the pandemic in the United states where the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were advising the general public not to purchase face masks, according to their official Twitter page. Now, a year into the pandemic, the public is informed that wearing masks is crucial in lowering transmission rates, according to the CDC.

The decision was made at the time due to limited information available about the pandemic and a fear of mask shortages for essential healthcare workers, according to Fauci. Under-believers used the fact that the CDC changed their stance on the mask issue to say that the CDC, and science in general, should not be trusted, Fauci explained. 

Gawande offered a potential solution to the growing tension between over-believers and under-believers, saying that a crucial step to combat the dissemination of science conspiracies is to help people understand how to differentiate between real science and pseudo-science. According to Gawande, instances of “cherry-picking data,” the prevalence of logical fallacies and the presence of figures with no credible scientific background are some of the key characteristics of unreliable science news. By developing literacy in identifying untrustworthy and biased news sources, people can also come to realize when they are being “snookered,” or exploited for political reasons.

According to the panelists, high quality and effective science communication should include unbiased science reporting and be able to resonate with the struggles of many groups of Americans. Additionally, Rosenthal underscores the importance of the human aspect in science reporting to provide compelling motives to follow public health protocol.

Gawande and Rosenthal discussed the healthcare system in the United States, which they described as having many problems that need solutions. While Rosenthal notes that the U.S. government has allocated $8 billion for vaccine distribution, she said there is still a lot of fallibility in accounting for who has received the vaccine and who has not. The current inconsistent and error-prone system is causing COVID-19 deaths to increase, according to an article by USA today

Rosenthal shares a personal detail: this past year, her mother passed away as a result of being infected with COVID-19. “[I]f this country had a public health system and politicians were honest, we wouldn’t be quick to jump the line for vaccines,” she criticized, adding how her account exemplifies the severity of the United States’ fragmented healthcare system and the imminent need for the reconsideration of national policy. “We need a national functional health system,” she added. 

Reflecting on the past year, the panelists offered tangible ways to better integrate and understand the role of science in society. Fauci emphasized that, in the event of another crisis, there is a necessity for empathy and communication. 

Fauci is the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, a New Yorker magazine writer and the founder of Ariadne Labs, a center for developing solutions to improve the United States healthcare delivery system, according to their page. Rosenthal is the editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News, a physician and former New York Times reporter. The virtual webinar was co-sponsored by the Brandeis Journalism Program, and was moderated by Swidey.

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