By Anne Blythe
Actor Alan Alda, who has spent much of the past decade trying to help scientists and health care workers share messages about their work in clear and relatable ways, coined a new word for the coronavirus pandemic during a Duke University webinar last week.
The founder of The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University was talking with Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during a webinar when he suggested everyday people take selfies, or “vaxxies,” of themselves getting vaccines and post them to social media.
“What do you think of this, Dr. Fauci,” Alda said. “It seems to me the most trusted people, the ambassadors, might be the people who are getting vaccinated themselves because they’ve made the choice to do it and they have a good reason to do it.”
During the brief observation period after the vaccine is administered, Alda suggested that people take a moment to describe to their friends and others close to them why they were inoculated, whether they were feeling any discomfort and any other thoughts.
“Then it occurred to me, what about this as an idea,” Alda continued. “If it’s possible to take a selfie while you’re getting a shot and post it on the web, post it on social media, the people you know trust you and you can spread the word that way. So instead of taking a selfie, take a ‘vaxxie.’”
“Good idea, Alan,” Fauci said while chuckling.
Fauci and Alda drew thousands to a webinar put on by Duke Science & Society and moderated by Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University.
Their conversation addressed a pressing topic: “Restoring Faith in Public Science Agencies.”
“What we’ve seen over the last year was kind of the evolution of the manifestation of lack of trust that kind of culminates on things that have been going on for the previous couple of years is that we have a public health crisis right now,” Fauci said. “In so many respects, it has evolved in the midst of the divisiveness of which we’ve not seen before. And you know science, in the sense that people assume science is authoritative, people don’t like to be told what to do. They think that science is authoritative in its approach.”
Know the audience, shape the messaging
That, Fauci said, creates an “almost instinctual pushing back on things that are so obviously scientifically correct.”
In such a culture, where data, research and evidence can seem to be pushed aside, statements, policies and attitudes are developed that are not based in factual science.
“Now that we’re in this extraordinary situation of a public health crisis, it had become very, very frustrating, where you have such divisiveness where people are developing their own set of facts as opposed to the facts that exist,” Fauci said. “And interpreting the facts. It’s been very frustrating. I don’t know why and how that evolved. It’s been a gradual process.
“You know, you have anti-science that’s merged with the anti-vax attitude that we have now. It’s going to be very difficult if that prevails as we try to get vaccines for COVID-19.”
Transparency about data and research behind the science is critical, Fauci said, to bring the country and the world out of the pandemic.
“I think what you said about people not wanting to be talked down to, told what to think, I think that’s very important,” Alda said. “We don’t have to present science in that way.”
Importance of local influencers
At Alda’s Stony Brook center, they have trained 15,000 scientists, he said, with the objective of getting them to communicate to their audiences with respect and personal contact. It’s important to know the audiences, know what they are ready to hear and communicate with them empathetically, he added.
Scientists and health care workers need to be able to communicate to large audiences and small audiences, such as in church basements or at community centers.
In North Carolina, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, has touted such an approach, stressing the importance of working with respected community members to build trust in vaccines and embrace mask-wearing.
A team in the state public health department has been calling small churches, large churches, mosques, synagogues and other ground-level influencers letting them know about local resources and important messaging.
On the day of the seminar, Cohen tried to convey a strong message to the state of North Carolina. A record 8,444 new lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported Friday, almost twice as many cases as reported a month before when North Carolina reported a then daily record 4,296 cases.
“Do not wait until it’s you or your loved sick with COVID-19 to wear a mask, wait apart from others and wash your hands often,” Cohen said in a statement released while Fauci and Alda were having their conversation. “Do not wait until it’s you or your loved one alone in a hospital bed. Do not wait until you’ve lost a loved one to this pandemic. Take personal responsibility for you, your loved ones and your community now.”
‘We will crush this outbreak that has really terrorized us’
As the webinar came to an end, Fauci and Alda offered closing thoughts.
“Science will save us,” Alda said. “Science has given us extra years to live. The average life span has increased so much in the last century. It’s now going to save us from this terrible pandemic and from pandemics to come. …If we don’t recognize science as our savior, we’re barking up the wrong tree.”
Fauci took the opportunity to highlight the importance vaccines have played in prolonging the average life span. He reminded all of vaccines against smallpox, childhood illnesses, measles, polio.
“And now, we’re dealing … with the current situation that biomedical research and science has given us something that just a decade ago would have seemed unimaginable. To be able to have a new virus, that we have never had experience with before, being thrust upon us and throw us into one of the most extraordinary, destructive pandemic in over 100 years,” Fauci continued. “Just over the past few days, science has allowed us to have a vaccine, that when we distribute it to people throughout the country, and hopefully throughout the world, we will crush this outbreak that has really terrorized us for the last 11 months.”
In addition to the severe illness and death, the COVID-19 invasion has caused harmful secondary consequences such as the disruption of economies and daily life, he added.
“When this is over, and it will be over, we’re going to look back and say, it was science that got us out of this,” Fauci concluded.