Science Communication in the Era of COVID-19

Posted on: March 2, 2021San Francisco

Hello, my name is Audrey.  I grew up in San Diego, CA, and I graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in spring 2020.  Since September 2020, I have served as a Cardiovascular QI Coordinator/COVID-19 Responder with the Population Health Division of the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH).  In this blog, I share some of my service activities and what I’ve learned about communicating science so far. 

In April of 2020, between baking cookies and watching movies with my family, I spent much of my time completing my college senior project. San Diego was under regional stay at home order, and I was finishing my last quarter of classes and preparing for my virtual graduation.  My senior project, fittingly enough, was on science communication in public health. For the program, I crafted an online portfolio of my work that communicated science in some way— grant proposals, memos, magazine articles, and podcasts. I explored how to translate complex scientific concepts for a wide range of audiences. So when I began my National Health Corps (NHC) service year at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, I had one idea of what science communication looked like.

As my service went on, I realized that I was engaging in an entirely different form of science communication.  A part-time COVID-19 Responder, I have most recently been involved in outreach to patients 65 and older who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.  I make phone calls to offer them the vaccine and to help them schedule an appointment.  For my senior project, I had been translating science into written articles, but now, I speak directly to patients one-on-one.  Many are afraid of the vaccine or have questions, especially minority communities who have a history of exploitation and mistreatment by the American medical system.  These conversations are complex and nuanced, and having them over the phone can make communication more challenging.   

During these outreach calls I find myself returning to a training that NHC conducted in the fall on Motivational Interviewing (MI).  In an MI approach, we recognize that a person is the expert on their own health, and we aim to empower them to find their own reasons for change.  Although I still have a lot to learn, I have found that this approach can open up a conversation with a client and invite them to share with me.  In one memorable conversation, a client who I called immediately declined the COVID-19 vaccine at the start of our conversation.  But after I asked about their concerns, they shared that they really did want to receive the vaccine, but that they were afraid.  We had a conversation about the decision, and they said that they would think about it further.  I let them know where to go if they did decide to get it, something that I may have not been able to share had I not given them the space in our conversation to verbalize their concerns. 

I was able to see the impact of vaccine outreach when I volunteered at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, where I greeted and directed patients at a COVID-19 vaccination site.  It was exciting to see community members make it to the vaccination site and receive the shot.  Many patients were grateful, and I felt lucky to be able to play a small role in vaccination efforts.  Since beginning my service, my definition of science communication has evolved and I have had the opportunity to develop new skills, like MI.  I’ve learned that the high level communication of my senior project is certainly important, but so are the one-on-one conversations that we have with one another.

About the Author:

Audrey Elliott

Audrey grew up in San Diego, CA. When she graduated from Stanford in June2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Audrey felt that there was no better time to pursue a service term with AmeriCorps. She joined the National Health Corps to gain valuable public health experience while serving and uplifting the communities around me. For some of her service term, she will be a COVID-19 case investigator and contract tracer, outreaching to individuals newly diagnosed with COVID-19 to provide guidance and resources.

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