As community transmission of COVID-19 took hold last March, state health departments launched messaging blasts that some experts say missed the mark with an overly vague suggested response, essentially giving up an opportunity to get ahead of the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Leandro Mena, a clinician-researcher and chair of the Department of Population Health Science at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said the health departments’ instructions to the public often centered on just calling a doctor if worried or they had signs and symptoms of infection. “For me there was a little bit of a problem with the messaging and lack of awareness,” Mena said.
That early mixed messaging caused irreversible damage in some communities, including Mena’s, where uninsured rates are high, chronic diseases prevalent, and low-wage public-facing jobs dominate the employment landscape.
Those conditions formed a perfect storm for virus spread among vulnerable populations that were already harder to reach before the pandemic.
By summer, Mississippi would have the highest new case rate in the nation. “On one side the people who you saw being initially most infected by COVID … were disproportionately Black and Latino, people who are disproportionately uninsured,” Mena said. “So people who you knew probably did not have a primary-care provider, but a choice was not given to them.”
Public health leaders across the country faced similar challenges, forcing them to innovate and improvise ways to get patients the tests and treatment they needed.