Close up of person's hand throwing a protective mask into the trash can, COVID complacency concept

Fighting COVID Complacency: A Public Health Challenge

Close up of person's hand throwing a protective mask into the trash can, COVID complacency concept

After two years of enduring the worst pandemic in a century, the world is ready to move on.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, is not.

While increasing vaccination rates in many parts of the world have helped slow the spread of COVID-19, infections and variants remain a real concern. For healthcare professionals and public health experts, combating the virus has become not only a matter of science, but also of public relations.

At the heart of this challenge is the question: How do healthcare professionals encourage continued public vigilance when the public is exhausted by COVID?

From pandemic to endemic

To discern whether COVID’s current status could shift from pandemic to endemic, more than 50 epidemiologists, immunologists, public health professionals, and policy experts explored the answer in a recent independent report.

In this report, the authors outline proposed steps by which Americans might begin to live with COVID as an endemic disease, similar to seasonal flu. Reaching that point, however, will not come easily.

“Going into March 2022, the country was still experiencing about 35,000 hospitalizations per day and 12,000 deaths per week from COVID, a toll exceeded only by the great modern killers of heart disease and cancer,” the report states. “To put this in perspective, the country has on occasion tolerated — meaning accepted without emergency mitigation efforts — as many as 1,150 deaths per week from major respiratory illnesses, including influenza and RSV. That COVID’s toll remains about 10 times higher than the flu’s modern worst is intolerable.”

Related: Moving from COVID-19 Pandemic to COVID-19 Endemic

Getting to the next normal

According to the report, navigating the fraught waters between pandemic and endemic requires a three-pronged plan.

First, it must define what a society living with endemic COVID might look like. Practically speaking, how does the “next normal” work? That plan must also include benchmarks and specific indicators to monitor progress.

Second, the plan must have concrete action items, each informed by public health and policy experts. These action items would range from mitigation and prevention efforts to the establishment of robust healthcare infrastructure capable of heading off the next pandemic before it starts.

Sample initiatives might cover:

  • An improved system for distributing and processing at-home COVID tests
  • Shoring up healthcare facilities and supporting critical healthcare staff
  • Educating the populace on sound public health practices

Finally, plan participants must be able to look back, learn from the first few years of pandemic policies, and adjust them in a way that will meet future demands of both the SARS-CoV-2 virus and other common respiratory viruses, including influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Related: Emerging Infectious Diseases

Public relations and public health

Central to all these goals is a clear and strong public communication strategy — something the U.S. struggled with in COVID’s early days.

“Coordinating public communication during a global pandemic is uniquely challenging,” the report says. “A successful strategy must leverage existing systems for coordination between local, state, and federal communicators and be present during both emergencies and periods of normalcy.”

Future areas of focus include:

  • Communication between federal, state, and local governments
  • Coordination between governments and the scientific community
  • Effective use of social media
  • Cultivating and/or rebuilding public trust

Education will play a major role in rebuilding that trust, both in current and future generations. Critical thinking skills and widespread literacy in issues of public health and science are required to ensure the success of any long-term pandemic prevention measures.

Related: We Are All Public Health Nurses: How Your Practice Impacts the Health of Humanity

Whether caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus or some other pathogen, there’s no way to wholly eliminate the risk of another pandemic. With vigilance, planning, and effective communication strategies, however, the public can mitigate both the risk and impact of future outbreaks.