As I write this message in late June, cases of COVID-19 are climbing across many U.S. states. As we slowly return to “normal” activities, it has been troubling to see many people disregarding the measures enacted the past few months to prevent transmission of this deadly virus. While we certainly can understand the feeling of “being over it,” we also must recognize that this pandemic is far from being over. As Anthony Fauci said on June 18, 2020, “We are still in the first wave of coronavirus.” And while some drug trials look promising, a vaccine is likely many months away. Even when one is available, we will need to vaccinate a large portion of the world’s population to prevent outbreaks as international travel resumes.
When looking at the global data on the pandemic, it is noteworthy that some countries not only flattened the epidemiologic curve of COVID-19 cases, but also mitigated the spread of the virus. Residents in these countries embraced the need to protect each other by adhering to physical distancing measures, wearing face coverings and using hygiene protocols for long enough to reduce cases to a small number. This enabled their countries to follow the proven containment strategy of testing, contact tracing and isolation to limit further outbreaks. This approach also prevented a surge in new cases as their economies reopened.
The experience in the U.S. has been mixed, largely depending on measures enacted at the local and state level. Nationwide, we hit a peak, then flattened the curve at a high level, yet as of this writing have the highest peak of cases since the pandemic started.
People’s response to this public health crisis brings to mind a study Julius Prince conducted for the New York State Department of Health in the late 1950s. In his 1958 article, “A Public Philosophy in Public Health,” Prince wrote:
If the citizens of our communities are incapable of making wise decisions in public health matters, then the answer does not lie in the direction of increased authoritarianism on our part. It lies rather in the direction of developing better [techniques] for getting our ideas across and a more widespread acceptance, on our part, of the importance of the social science approach to community public health problems.
As OSH professionals, we have a unique opportunity to significantly impact the community of workers under our care. We may be tired of the pandemic and the restrictions it has created. And we may be frustrated by those disregarding the scientific evidence or not following guidance on various protective measures.
That is why it is even more important that we accept the challenge to come up with a new strategy so that we can help our workers, organizations and communities understand the value of protecting public health. For example, try using a technique such as the five whys to explore the reasons people are not practicing physical distancing or to learn more about the barriers to wearing a face covering. Talk with your employees to determine what kind of training would resonate better. Identify ways you can provide additional support to workers who might not have necessary access to healthcare or a home environment that allows for quarantining from sick family members.
This pandemic will end. Until then, let’s do our best to continue to help manage this risk, just as we would any other. That requires the due diligence to maintain the proven public health strategies of containment and mitigation. Stay the course and be well!