New OSU-Cascades report aims to help guide COVID public health messaging

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to climb, Bend city officials and public health leaders are collaborating with Oregon State University-Cascades researchers to determine how to tailor public health messages to keep communities safer and healthier.

Finding ways to convey the benefit of public health recommendations that align with the values of different groups of people and communities is instrumental in this work.

“A lot of money is spent on public health messaging, including messaging that does not work or might even alienate some parts of the public,” said Elizabeth Marino, a cultural anthropologist and co-director of the Laboratory for the American Conversation, which conducted the research. “Our data-driven approach aims to solicit positive reactions to public health messages and improve observance among groups most vulnerable to COVID-19.”

Marino worked with Christopher Wolsko, co-director of the lab and an associate professor of psychology at OSU-Cascades, to conduct a national survey along with interviews and focus groups in Bend.

Their aim was to learn how people from different backgrounds and communities react to public health advice about COVID-19, and what messages make the most sense to them.

Based on the survey findings, researchers estimate roughly 40% of people in the U.S. believe COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, while about 25% think it’s likely a hoax.

Those who believe COVID-19 is not a serious concern are less likely to engage in recommended behaviors like wearing face coverings and social distancing.

Results showed that people who were skeptical of public health messages about COVID-19 responded more positively to messages centered on patriotism, defending oneself and protecting those at higher risk.

The City of Bend funded the study with federal CARES Act money, as part of COVID relief efforts.

“The City of Bend wanted to support research efforts that our public health partners can use to develop messaging that will be effective in helping reduce the spread of COVID-19, which is one of our core objectives as a city in managing through this pandemic,” said Bend City Manager Eric King.

OSU-Cascades researchers are working with Deschutes County Health Services to make use of their new findings to get pertinent health information to people who need it most.

“These survey research findings may be quite valuable for Deschutes County Health Services, as we continue to manage our local response to the pandemic,” said Dr. George Conway, county health director. “The results of this study will help us to better tailor and target public health messaging.”

Marino, who is an associate professor at OSU-Cascades, said it’s important to remember that the source of information affects how people receive it.

“It’s not that individuals are against information or facts,” she said. “It’s that no one can internalize information unless it’s within a value frame that is familiar to them.”

In interviews with people in Bend, the researchers explored why some don’t trust the guidance from scientists and public health or governmental bodies.

Among people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous communities, distrust in the medical establishment is often rooted in systemic mistreatment of those communities by medical professionals.

No matter their racial, political or ideological background, people are constantly making risk assessments to guide their behavior, Marino said. For some people, the greatest risks are to health and safety. For others, existential threats such as losing one’s identity or surrendering their individual control feel even more dangerous.

“We’re trying to understand people’s concerns. We’re not saying they shouldn’t have them,” Marino said. “Medical and scientific institutions are charged with educating and advising the public, but these institutions also need to be educated on why their constituencies may be worried about trusting that education and advice.”

Researchers are currently recruiting more Bend residents for focus groups to learn more about how the national survey results align with local people’s beliefs and behaviors around COVID-19.

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