Colorado lacks effective COVID-19 public health campaign

Nearly a year into the state’s response, communication remains murky

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For over a year, scientists have worked around the clock to discover a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. With success well underway, the breakthrough can only be as robust as the public’s understanding of it.

No doubt the federal response to the pandemic has left much to be desired. Under President Trump, consistent and factual public health communication has perhaps been one of the biggest failures of the administration — a feat hard to measure when pitted against the disabling of pandemic response teams and outright dismissal of the virus, to name a few. Still, federal absence of a public health campaign was wholly predictable, so why hasn’t Colorado stepped up?

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Sure, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has a colorful dial, one they apparently like to change on a whim to avoid having to actually use it. There’s an app, of which little effectiveness has been reported. Gov. Jared Polis often holds COVID-19 press conferences, but these hardly go viral. At one point there was a bizarre Amber Alert-style text message warning residents of “deadly COVID-19” over six months into the pandemic, a confusing and curious delay echoed by the state’s announcement of “Step Up Colorado” on Oct. 20 to promote masks and physical distancing. The initiative was not only months behind, but only slated to run through December with no mention of vaccine education, a continued effort to punt responsibility to local communities with unclear oversight, state support or metrics.

In fact, it has occurred to me that throughout this whole ordeal not once have I, as a resident of Colorado, received clear and effective communication about COVID-19 from the state that I haven’t personally sought out. I’ve seen no COVID-19 public health campaign videos or advertisements paid to reach me. No mailers, flyers, door hangers, calls or text messages with information on free testing sites near me, or links to resources for economic assistance. I’ve received zero emails with direct communication regarding where or how I’d get a vaccine should one become available. No surveys on needs assessments or vaccine priority have reached me. Frankly, if I weren’t formally trained in medical research and public health, I’d likely be just as confused and skeptical as many others about the whole hullabaloo. Surely, if a public health crisis is urgent enough to close huge sectors of our economy, it would warrant at least a few timely text messages or targeted flyers, right?

The benefits of public health campaigns to modify behavior have long been established — so long as they are consistent in duration and messaging. Direct advertisements, including online, are widely accepted, a fact unsurprising to anyone with a background in psychology or marketing. It’s for these reasons public health campaigns are run for everything from anti-smoking behaviors to wearing seat belts to avoiding drinking and driving. Particularly during COVID-19, a crisis which requires the rapid dissemination of new information, clear and consistent communication was by far one of our greatest tools to beat this virus. In lieu of federal action, this should have been a top priority for states to develop. While arguably much of the substance is readily available at various state websites — if you know where to look — nearly one year in, many Coloradans remain without direct delivery of such information.

This oversight is likely to become particularly problematic as vaccines approach distribution. Not only are we failing to flatten the curve, but as a state with a history of low vaccination compliance, a lack of vaccine acceptance and understanding threaten to thwart recovery. To this end, direct public health campaigns emphasizing vaccine safety, dosages and order of distribution are critical to success. Additional communication on the limits of vaccine efficacy, and explanations of herd immunity to highlight why masks and physical distancing will still be required in the meantime, would not only expedite recovery, but save lives.  

It’s unclear why a robust public health campaign for COVID-19 has yet to be established. Would a catchy “Rona” cartoon character or viral slogan be too much to ask for? Or a state youth video campaign competition to combat “stay-at-home” fatigue while educating? Prevention measures may seem costly, but they pale in comparison to costs accrued by failing to prevent. Perhaps seeking information has also been determined to fall on personal responsibility, in which case I’d suggest any elected official who believes this should run all future political campaigns without any direct voter outreach — not to worry, your reelection will rest solely on informed citizens seeking you out.

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