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Health Messaging in the Disinformation Age

Unclear, opaque public-health messaging has been a major problem throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sowing confusion and making the crisis worse than it needed to be. To regain the public's trust, health officials must start learning from their mistakes and stop confusing credibility with infallibility.

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, CT – As the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, recently acknowledged, poor public-health communication and messaging throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the public’s trust in health agencies and institutions. This, in turn, contributed to well-known problems such as vaccine hesitancy, noncompliance with mask recommendations and other protective measures, and general misinformation about the virus and how it is transmitted.

According to a 2021 poll from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, only 52% of Americans now place a great deal of trust in the CDC, and only 37% have much confidence in the National Institutes of Health or the Food and Drug Administration. State health departments fare little better. They are trusted by just 41% of Americans, with local health departments trusted by 44%, and the same poll shows that positive ratings of the public health system declined from 43% to 34% between 2009 and 2021.

Clearly, public-health agencies need to win back the public’s trust, not just to combat crises like COVID-19 and monkeypox, but also to address a wider range of ongoing health issues. This process must start with a commitment to community engagement, partnerships across other sectors such as housing and education, effective communication at every level, and transparency and integrity in decision-making.