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Why COVID-19 public health communication may have failed to reach those that needed it most?

Authors: Tamra Burns Loeb, Ph.D., Associate Adjunct Professor, Center for Culture, Trauma, and Mental Health Disparities, University of California, Los Angeles; and Graciela Albarran, MPH, Administrative Specialist , UCLA’s Center for Culture, Trauma and Mental Health Disparities

A critical component of the effectiveness of public health messages is evaluating their reach to populations at elevated risk. Problems with misinformation, contradictory messaging, and the need for tailored prevention messages have been highlighted. However, an important question that now remains is whether health messages posted online by government websites or on social media are known to and have been accessed by those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. Public health communication is a critical strategy used to mitigate disease during public health crises, but those at heightened risk, including under-represented populations managing chronic illnesses, face significant barriers to accessing reliable health information.

To facilitate ongoing acceptance of public health measures, including vaccination uptake, we must first understand where vulnerable populations obtain their public health information. Public health messages disseminated by the government, health care systems, and news sources are not uniformly accepted by all communities due to experiences of historical and ongoing discrimination. Digital disparities, including poor WIFI coverage in lower-income and rural communities, limited access to WIFI-enabled devices, and varying levels of digital health literacy, as well as historical lack of interest in reaching racialized and under-represented populations, limit the range and adoption of messaging.

We must prioritize research that aims to understand the experiences of those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 so that policymakers and healthcare professionals can develop strategies to reach vulnerable populations during public health crises.

This work was supported by the American Lung Association’s COVID-19 and Emerging Viruses Research Program (COVID-923029), the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (U01HL142109), and the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine COVID-19 Research Award Program (HE-06).

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