As the nation enters its ninth month of coronavirus restrictions amidst rising case numbers, “COVID fatigue” is setting in right when it can be most dangerous. At the same time, dropping temperatures are making outdoor recreation less appealing, removing a much safer environment for avoiding transmission.
Adding in large, indoor-centric holidays in November and December, and counties are facing their toughest test of the pandemic just when many are setting records for daily positive tests.
Ada County, Idaho, for one, is sending a message of positive reinforcement.
“We’re trying to stay positive with our messaging,” said Commission Chair Kendra Kenyon. “We’re saying ‘Thank you for wearing your mask’ rather than ‘Do it.’”
They’ll try to draw more flies with honey than with vinegar. The county is working with the city of Boise to coordinate social media messaging, in lieu of a statewide campaign.
“We think it’s better, especially when you have a county where half don’t feel like masks do anything,” Kenyon said. “The people we’re trying to appeal to are the people who think it’s a hoax or that masks don’t work,” so there’s little good in entrenching their positions with aggression and shaming.
Kenyon can see how the duration of the pandemic has affected people.
“People are tired and they’re letting their guard down,” she said. “It’s challenging to keep people connected emotionally when you can’t get together physically, especially when they look forward to family holidays.”
That strategy, avoiding shaming people, is central to Hennepin County, Minnesota’s Take Care campaign, which highlights the vulnerabilities of sensitive groups and frontline health care workers.
“The trick is figuring out how are you trying to communicate to people’s psyches? If you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for others,” said Carolyn Marinan, chief public relations officer for Hennepin County.
“Communication is probably the most significant weapon that can help or hurt us, because you are really trying to impact behavior, and that’s one of the hardest things to do with human beings.”
In contrast, Charity Menefee, director of communicable and environmental disease and emergency preparedness for the Knox County, Tenn. Health Department, did not mince her words in a recent news conference, gauging her concern at an eight or nine out of 10.
“I know you’re tired of hearing it and I’m tired of saying it, but I’m coming to you today pleading to please take these actions seriously,” Menefee said of the county’s five core actions to prevent transmission: Practicing physical distancing, wearing a face covering, washing hands, sanitizing surfaces and staying home if sick.
“There’s not going to be time for the cases to come back down by the time we have our next holiday. … If nothing about our behavior changes, these numbers will continue to rise at a high rate.”
Kenyon noted that a recent press conference by Gov. Brad Little (R) got some traction when a nurse shared her story of working during the pandemic. “That seemed to resonate with people, so we’re trying to incorporate testimonials to help people relate to what’s going on, using real people.”
Harris County, Texas sent an emergency text alert to all 4.7 million of its residents asking them to cancel their holiday gatherings and to get tested.
Whatcom County, Wash. Health Department Director Erika Lautenbach suggested families forge new holiday traditions, including preparing meals for homebound neighbors and synchronizing remote viewing of holiday movies or football games with family and friends in other households.
“This year, we have the opportunity to be creative about how we celebrate,” she said.
In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Contra Costa County, Calif. launched a “Testing Before Turkey” campaign to encourage COVID-19 testing before gathering for meals, while nearby Yolo County encouraged families to limit their gatherings to 16 people.
But even when the holidays are over and 2020 is in the rearview mirror, the United States will be months away from any number of COVID-19 vaccines and still looking at roughly a dozen weeks of cold weather.
Kenyon thinks Ada County residents would be well-served by continuing to enjoy the outdoors if they want to be social. “We have an influx of new residents who aren’t really acclimated to our way of life, so that’s something we want to stress,” she said. “It’s so easy to distance outside, so go snowshoeing, take a walk in the park. Get out and enjoy why you moved here.”