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Why clear, consistent communication is so important during a public health crisis

Amid the growing U.S. coronavirus outbreak, some experts have criticized the way President Trump, his team and top public health officials are communicating information to the public. For example, Trump made inaccurate statements Friday about the availability of virus tests. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now back to our lead story, the coronavirus.

    There has been criticism and concern from some experts about how the president, his team and top public health officials are communicating important information to the American public.

    At times, the president has been at odds with what others say, or has statements that are wrong, inaccurate, or lack important context.

    That happened on Friday, when he visited the CDC and was asked about when Americans could be tested for the virus.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Anybody that needs a test can have a test. They're all set. They have them out there.

    In addition to that, they're making millions of more as we speak. As of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test — that's the important thing — and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In fact, some states can only do limited numbers of tests right now. And tests are still being distributed.

    A short time after the president spoke Friday, Vice President Pence offered a clarification.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    We trust, in a matter of weeks, the coronavirus tests will be broadly available to the public and available to any American that is symptomatic and has a concern about the possibility of having contracted the coronavirus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So let's look at some of these concerns we're discussing around what is being controlled conveyed to the public.

    Dr. Joshua Sharfstein is the vice dean at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He's a former deputy commissioner of the FDA. He's also the author of "The Public Health Crisis Survival Guide: Leadership and Management in Trying Times."

    Dr. Sharfstein, thank you very much for joining us.

    How important is clear communication, accurate communication at a time like this?

  • Joshua Sharfstein:

    It is incredibly important, because without clear, compelling, compassionate communication, people don't know what to do. And they can't take action necessarily to protect themselves and those they love.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what does that mean is the responsibility of leaders, whether they are leaders in the political sector or in the health sector or, for that matter, in the economic sector?

  • Joshua Sharfstein:

    Well, communications is one of the central components of crisis response.

    And what it means is having — designating people who are credible and trust worthy to give information to the public, whether it's good news or bad news, with context, with care, with empathy, but telling it like it is.

    And if you don't have that, then people can become uncertain, they can lose trust, they can become fearful, and they can basically not do the things that they actually need to do to stay as healthy as possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In your view, is that the kind of communication you're describing taking place right now?

  • Joshua Sharfstein:

    I think there are few people who would that say this is really by-the-book communication at the moment.

    I think the concern is not only that there are mixed messages being given, but that some of the most credible and compelling people in the administration are not really leading the communications effort.

    And I will give you an example. I think it doesn't matter the political party. Any politician, when they say something, they want to stick to it. And people say, well, if you change your mind or you say something different, that is like flip-flopping.

    But in a public health crisis, the circumstances might change, the science might change, the guidance might change. And a — an experienced communicator will be able to explain if something has changed, something different needs to be done.

    So it's really important to leave the bulk of the communications to people who can really put it in context, who have subject matter expertise, and can really compel attention and trust.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to read something the president, President Trump tweeted late this morning. As you may know, he has over 70 million followers on Twitter. This is what the president wrote.

    He said: "So, last year, 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down. Life and the economy go on. At this moment, there are 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

    I think the suggestion he is making is that the country, people don't stop doing the things they ordinarily do when there is a common flu, which kills, as he says, tens of thousands of Americans. We don't have those kinds of statistics right now around the coronavirus.

    Why should we be getting so exercised about this?

  • Joshua Sharfstein:

    Well, the challenge is that there is no spin for a virus. The virus doesn't get to tweet.

    The virus is just doing what the virus does. And it's up to the rest of us to take the actions necessary to control it. There is a lot of concern that this is a virus that is spreading, if you look at what is happening in Italy or other countries.

    We need to do everything we can right now to prevent that from happening here. The concern with just general reassurance is that people will lapse back into thinking this isn't something I need to change my life around.

    I heard one person say that they saw some reassuring message on cable TV and decided to go ahead with a big party for a lot of people who were over 70, 75 years old, where all these people are going to be traveling.

    Like, that's not good. It is putting them at risk. And so it's better to be focused on what could happen and how to prevent worse problems than just sort of putting a gloss on the situation right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what you say to just, as an example, one of President Trump's followers on Twitter who read that, reads that, and thinks, well, the common flu kills many more people, why should I even be concerned right now?

  • Joshua Sharfstein:

    Well, this is a new virus. It is a virus that none of us have immunity to.

    It is a virus that is killing people around the world. And if it spreads like it is spreading there here, many more people could die in the United States than from flu. And we have to do everything we can to prevent that from happening here.

    And, particularly, the good news is, there are things we can do. It's really important in communications not to have people feel either helpless or hopeless.

    So, wash your hands. Stay home if you are sick. Cough into your arm, the sorts of things, even basic things. What can everybody do? Those really should be the most important messages right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Joshua Sharfstein of Johns Hopkins, thank you very much.

  • Joshua Sharfstein:

    Thanks for having me.

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