State and Territorial Health Officials (S/THOs) play a critical role in the health security of our nation. The demands are many, and the margin of error is small. S/THOs must translate the best available public health evidence and science into actionable policy advice for elected leaders and other cabinet agencies. They must act as a credible, timely source of accurate information to a variety of stakeholders. Equally important, the SHO and the public health team must convey a clear, compassionate, and caring message to the public to motivate appropriate protective behaviors without instilling inappropriate fear. All of this must occur while leading and managing complex public health agencies strained under the demands of an emergency response.
The role is all the more complex in a rapidly evolving situation in which many unknowns remain. Overconfidence or utilizing an inaccurate mental model of an issue can lead to missteps and diminish public trust. It is critical for this reason to be very cognizant of what is known, what is unknown, what is controllable, and what is not controllable. This humility allows rapid adjustments to strategies and tactics and allows an accurate and credible message to be delivered to and received by the public and policymakers.
ASTHO worked closely with Drs. Randall Hyer and Vincent Covello from the Center for Risk Communication/CrisisCommuncation.net to develop this communication guide to assist S/THOs in preparing to communicate with the public, media, and policymakers about COVID-19. It is openly acknowledged that knowledge of COVID-19 is rapidly evolving and subject to many uncertainties.
State and territorial health officials prioritized more than 70+ questions on COVID-19 for which these message map style answers were developed. Of course, a S/THO’s judgment will determine the most appropriate response to an issue in his or her jurisdiction. It is our hope that this messaging guide can provide S/THOs with a baseline of consistent messages across our nation.
COVID-19: Simple Answers to Top Questions will be modified and updated as events evolve, and more is known.