COVID-19: Time to ‘take the risk of scaring people’


It’s past time to call the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, a pandemic and “time to push people to prepare, and guide their prep,” according to risk communication experts.

Courtesy NIAID-RML

Medical messaging about containing or stopping the spread of the virus is doing more harm than good, write Peter Sandman, PhD, and Jody Lanard, MD, both based in New York City, in a recent blog post.

“We are near-certain that the desperate-sounding last-ditch containment messaging of recent days is contributing to a massive global misperception,” they warn.

“The most crucial (and overdue) risk communication task … is to help people visualize their communities when ‘keeping it out’ – containment – is no longer relevant.”

That message is embraced by several experts who spoke to Medscape Medical News.

“I’m jealous of what [they] have written: It is so clear, so correct, and so practical,” said David Fisman, MD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, Canada. “I think WHO [World Health Organization] is shying away from the P word,” he continued, referring to the organization’s continuing decision not to call the outbreak a pandemic.

“I fully support exactly what [Sandman and Lanard] are saying,” said Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Health care professionals should now be advising people how to prepare – yet this is the most neglected message, Sandman and Lanard write. “Hardly any officials are telling civil society and the general public how to get ready for this pandemic.”

Effective communication should inform people of what to expect now, they continue: “[T]he end of most quarantines, travel restrictions, contact tracing, and other measures designed to keep ‘them’ from infecting ‘us,’ and the switch to measures like canceling mass events designed to keep us from infecting each other.”

Among the new messages that should be delivered are things like:

  • Stockpiling nonperishable food and prescription meds.
  • Considering care of sick family members.
  • Cross-training work personnel so one person’s absence won’t derail an organization’s ability to function.

“We hope that governments and healthcare institutions are using this time wisely,” Sandman and Lanard continue. “We know that ordinary citizens are not being asked to do so. In most countries … ordinary citizens have not been asked to prepare. Instead, they have been led to expect that their governments will keep the virus from their doors.”

This article first appeared on

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