Experts weigh in on how to communicate to a public weary of pandemic behavioral change

Pandemic fatigue in the U.S. is converging with a massive spike in COVID-19 cases, and policymakers and public health officials are struggling to find messaging strategies that effectively encourage low-transmission behavior among residents.

One example of this came during New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy's Nov. 12 news conference. When a reporter asked him what he has to say to residents who are tired of wearing masks because they find it uncomfortable and annoying, Mr. Murphy responded, "You know what's really uncomfortable and annoying? When you die. That's my answer." 

Mr. Murphy went on to ask New Jerseyans to continue following COVID-19 safety protocols and reminded them that they won't have to be followed forever, saying that the state is "in a sprint right now."

However, since clinicians have long struggled to get people to change their behavior to improve their health, it's even more difficult to get them to change it for the sake of others' health, economist Emily Oster, PhD, argued in her op-ed for The New York Times. She said it's particularly difficult for local governments to communicate about and enforce these behavior changes because they affect people's private lives and how they chose to gather in indoor spaces that they own.

When governments fail to communicate clear and specific behavior change strategies, many Americans are left wondering how serious the pandemic actually is, according to Tucson-based University of Arizona psychology professor David Sbarra, PhD.

Dr. Sbarra said governments need to ensure they are educating people about how certain behavioral changes are effective ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and need to be followed in order to avoid case spikes, saying that public entities need to help Americans understand "that wearing a mask is easy to do and need not be personally burdensome or a disruption of your civil liberties."

Dr. Oster suggested that the country should have a plan in place that anticipates its residents, exhausted from having their daily processes upended for months, won't obey continued social distancing and masking guidance. 

She said one way to do this is to emphasize testing as a backup. For example, governments could tell residents not to see their extended families for holidays and also tell them that if they do, they should get tested for COVID-19 before and after gatherings and isolate themselves until they receive results.

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