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The Pandemic Changed How I Think About Science Communication

How the power of story sharing, honesty and empathetic listening moved people and changed their opinions about COVID-19.

After a year of working with the Minneapolis Health Department calling people who tested positive for COVID-19, I don’t know how many calls I’ve made, but I keep chugging away at an ever-growing list. When I check one name off, another dozen are added.

While working as a case investigator on one public health crisis, my eyes are open to a glaring science crisis: the difference between communicating with people and irresponsibly just spewing facts at them. Something has to change. 

I pick up the phone one gray November day to make yet another call. A young guy picks up and he immediately expresses disinterest in speaking with me, frankly, because he doesn’t believe his test results.

“Sir, why don't you believe your test results?” I asked.

He explained to me that he doesn’t feel sick and he doesn’t know anyone with the virus. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that he would have it and he tested negative only days before his positive test.

I felt my lips purse in irritation.  Although, logical reasoning on his part.

 “So what am I supposed to think?” he said.  

My answer would be one I’ve said many times before, but this time it seemed to carry more weight. 

I explained that not everyone will feel sick, and how there is a small window of time between getting tested and when you actually caught the virus that you may produce a negative test that is in fact false, and for these same reasons it is very possible that someone he knows or briefly encountered does have COVID-19 and well, they just don’t know it either.

Then the line went quiet, I thought I lost him, “Sir? Are you there?” I said. There was silence for a moment until he said, “How do you know all of that?” 

I was shocked, mouth practically agape, because in my circle, this was considered “common knowledge,” information we all had access to.

No amount of training or updates on information from epidemiologists and CDC professionals' could prepare us for moments like these, which were numerous, where empathetic, honest and clear communication may be the difference between a changed mind or a further confused one.

We spoke for over an hour, by the end he was thanking me and apologizing at the same time, but I felt I owed him an apology. There's a danger in making assumptions about what people know or ought to know, there's a bigger danger in considering people as just a “case to be called, interviewed, and checked off.”  

Approaching science this way is how we miss opportunities to help, connect and learn something ourselves. There's power in story sharing, asking questions and bringing together knowledge, and that is the essence of communication.

Note: This piece was written in the fall of 2021.

June, 2022