British Columbia

Clear messages are essential in fight against COVID-19, says UBC researcher

Frustration about the lack of specifics behind some of B.C.'s latest health orders is a useful lesson in how to communicate better during a pandemic, says UBC's Heidi Tworek.

New orders introduced Saturday for Metro Vancouver created confusion among some people

Heidi Tworek, an associate professor in international history at University of British Columbia, says governments and public health agencies have to be more effective at communicating to the public because disinformation will spread faster than facts. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

An expert in public communications says it's important for public health messages to be as clear as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic after new health orders from the B.C. government Saturday left many confused.

Heidi Tworek, an associate professor in public policy and international history at the University of British Columbia and co-author of a report looking into international approaches to communication during the pandemic, says people want to adhere to guidelines.

"In many cases, when people contravene guidelines, it wasn't out of deliberate malice, it was because people were confused," said Tworek.

"They want to do the right thing in general, we just need to meet them where they're at and explain it in a way they can understand."

There has been frustration about the lack of specifics behind some of B.C.'s latest health orders. On Saturday, Dr. Bonnie Henry announced sweeping new COVID-19 restrictions for the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health regions for a two-week period as cases in the province surge. 

Residents in the two regions were told not to have social interactions with anyone outside of their immediate household.  Indoor group fitness activities were cancelled, as well as party buses and limousines. Travel into the region has been discouraged.

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However, almost immediately, there was confusion about the new restrictions and questions arose about defining a "household" and what could be considered a "social gathering."

Effective public health communication, Tworek says, relies on autonomy and letting people make informed decisions for themselves.

"But the key to that functioning — and it really functioned well for the first phase of B.C. response — was that it was clear where the boundaries were."

She says the 50-person limit on gatherings was an example of that clear guideline — but the latest guidelines are more grey.

On Monday, Henry said she had received countless questions over the weekend over the regulations, and clarified that it was time to return to the strict safety measures that people were following in the spring when the pandemic began, postponing social gatherings, cancelling play dates, working from home whenever possible and pausing non-essential travel. 

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Henry said this kind of confusion is common when new orders go into place.

"It's a shock when we put out these things and it takes us some time to figure out the details to make sure the information gets out in a way that they understand," said Henry.

Ultimately, Tworek says much hinges on trust between the public health teams and the public. 

"Because this is a long-run pandemic, we need to have officials building rapport with the population. We've seen Dr. Henry do that through expressing emotion, being transparent about modelling," she said. 

"[It] is crucial in the moment because it means people want to comply and they see that there's reasons behind it."

With files from Joel Ballard, On The Coast