A Letter to the Optimists

By Karen Goldstein, Senior Vice President, Public Health

Full disclosure: I am an optimist. I’m always looking for that silver lining and the bright side of a situation. Throughout the emotional turmoil and frustrations of the last year, I have forced myself to believe in brighter, kinder, healthier days ahead. I’ll be honest, though – it hasn’t been easy to watch events unfold, particularly from a public health perspective, and believe my own inner dialogue.

And yet, at the APHA virtual meeting this past year, speaking to thousands of public health practitioners, keynote speaker Bryan Stevenson said something that really resonated with me: “Hope is your superpower.” The public health community is charged with taking a population-level approach to tackling our biggest health challenges and coming up with solutions, on a global scale but also community by community. With long-term underfunding and political polarization creating unprecedented challenges, the individuals working so diligently to protect the public’s health keep forging ahead to do what’s needed to help others.

At this moment, I am starting to feel hopeful again. Here’s why:

There’s a vaccine for COVID-19 – and even more than one! Watching our frontline healthcare workers and senior population receive their vaccinations has been amazing, and more of an emotional salve than I had expected. There is still so much to be done to ensure widespread and equitable uptake, but the fact that we have effective vaccines within a year of the first known cases deserves its moment of recognition and awe.

In addition to a “wartime” strategy presented by the new Biden administration, I was heartened to see the first statement from new CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, which reaffirms CDC’s commitment to update COVID-19 guidance using the latest evidence so that people can make informed decisions. Working with the CDC on public health education campaigns over the past two decades, I have found their employees to be dedicated public servants who rigorously support evidence-based programs and messaging. It’s reassuring to see them step back into their own shoes.

The collaborative, cross-sector approach to vaccine promotion by the COVID Collaborative and Ad Council to encourage vaccine uptake by health care providers and the general public alike is incredible. They recently shared their research, messaging guidance and initial health care practitioner resources (including these videos with Dr. Fauci), with more campaign materials to come in the next few months (and major brands lending support). The crux of their approach is a focus on understanding people’s concerns about vaccination, with additional emphasis on the messenger being as important as the message. (Here’s a great example by Dr. Eugenia South, a Black doctor who shared her story about questioning the vaccine but ultimately deciding to take it.)

And while not related to COVID-19, I was also interested to see that the Communications Network, as part of their Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Project, recently released a report called Race and Racism: Doing Good Better that provides a starting point to understanding how communicators are bringing the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion into social good communications work. The report takes an honest look at where we are falling short in these efforts, and provides clear, practical and actionable advice for communicators to promote and advance equity communications.

It hasn’t always been easy to be an optimist, especially this past year. And yes, I know we have a long way to go. But I am hopeful that we can be more effective working in partnership, with science and evidence driving our efforts. I am still hopeful we can figure out a way to communicate about COVID-19 preventive measures without stigma, racism or politics (case in point, always an optimist).

At JPA Health, we believe in the power of health communication to improve people’s lives. We are eager and ready to support HHS, nonprofit and private sector efforts to promote evidence-based guidance and support informed decision making for our employees, networks, families and communities. To learn more about our work, or if you’re an optimist looking to network with likeminded people, please feel free to contact me at kgoldstein@jpa.com.

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