Editorial: Improve messaging to encourage COVID fight

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot
·3 min read

At a time when the coronavirus is surging nationwide, including in parts of Virginia, it makes sense to revisit the restrictions and recommendations aimed at slowing the spread of the virus and protecting the commonwealth’s health care infrastructure.

Yet, at the same time, people are tired — of the pandemic, of the restrictions, of the uncertainty and anxiety and stress of it all. They need clear, compelling evidence that what they are being asked to do is necessary and can make a difference.

So it was disappointing to see the manner Gov. Ralph Northam rolled out new, tightened restrictions for Virginia. There’s no question it could have been handled better and must be in the future.

Northam posted a video on Friday outlining plans to amend his executive orders intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The changes included reducing the limit on gatherings from 250 to 25, including indoor and outdoor; mandating mask use for everyone aged 5 and up (previously it was 10); more vigorous enforcement of the mask mandate; and a 10 p.m. limit on alcohol sales.

Obviously that raised a lot of questions. Northam had said at a press conference earlier this week that he had no plans to tighten restrictions already in place despite his worry over a growing number of cases across the commonwealth, particularly in Southwest Virginia.

State health officials believe spread in those communities was linked primarily to small family gatherings and perhaps to church attendance. Reporting by outlets in that region appeared to confirm that, as those infected said they didn’t know where they caught COVID-19, which generally means at-home transmission from family members or friends.

It was not immediately clear how these new restrictions would affect that, and the governor made no case for how these measures were targeted to Virginia’s specific concerns. That disconnect is where distrust takes root — and that’s a real problem for Northam and for Virginia.

Scientists keep learning about this virus — the way it spreads through the population, the situations that are most dangerous and the long-term health effects for some of those who recover, including heart ailments, respiratory and nervous problems and some mental illness that appears linked to the disease.

Medical professionals are more adept at treating the afflicted — outcomes are better — but improved care practices and better pharmacology is no excuse for bravado by the public. Ditto the recent promising news on the vaccine front, since distribution and mass vaccination are still a long way off.

The best protection for you, your family and your community is through social distancing, proper hygiene, wearing a mask, avoiding large gatherings and staying clear of poorly ventilated indoor spaces. We knew most of this in March and yet still struggle to help that message take firm hold.

Some of that reluctance is political, as ridiculous as that may be, and some of it comes from suspicion toward government and institutions, a different sickness infecting this country. But some of it is because public officials have done a poor job of messaging and persuasion, failing to reach people who need to be convinced this is the correct course of action.

Northam is right to be proactive. The lag between infection and a positive test data provides a window into the past rather than a clear picture of where we are. But the governor needed to deliver the news in person, with health experts there to explain in detail what they are seeing, where spread is occurring and why these specific changes are necessary.

Instead, Virginians may have seen Northam’s video message on social media, or not. They may have heard about them in the news, or not. The amended executive orders weren’t ready at the time of the release, raising a host of questions that had no answers.

To fight this virus effectively and make it through the winter, we need everyone on board. Getting there deserves more care and consideration than was on display Friday,

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