COVID-19 Corps Communicators: Speaking the Same Language
In the past 15 months, the world has gained an entirely new vocabulary: one that includes new or previously little-known terms like “COVID” and “coronavirus,” as well as phrases like “monoclonal antibodies,” “mRNA,” “variants” and even “Zoom fatigue.” Keeping up to date with these phrases and their meanings, as well as the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is essential for health departments to be able to educate and inform their communities around the country—especially those who may be hard to reach or are at greater risk due to longstanding health inequities.
That’s why the CDC Foundation’s health communications specialists are essential to the response. Assigned to a variety of state, territorial, local and tribal jurisdictions, these pros provide written and graphic material, as well as video and social media assets, designed to keep their hard-hit areas up to date with the very latest information on the fast-moving coronavirus crisis.
Alicia Edwards recently graduated with her master’s in public health and is now stationed with the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board (GPTCHB). Lyanne Melendez spent eight years as a health journalist in her native Puerto Rico before joining the island’s health department as a CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps member. Shannon Kuhn had been working in local government on health equity issues in Alaska, where she was raised. “I was brought onto the COVID-19 Corps specifically to help the State with outreach to communities that were being disproportionately impacted by COVID,” she says.
One of Kuhn’s first projects for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services was to produce a short video and posters featuring members of the Pacific Islander community, reminding everyone to mask up in their native languages. She also partnered with a Samoan church on education efforts, which later offered to host a vaccine clinic to increase access. Alaska is home to a diverse immigrant and refugee population with many languages spoken, and Kuhn worked with community-based organizations (CBOs) to make health education videos in Amharic, Arabic, Dinka, Korean, Nuer, Russian and Somali, and to organize a Spanish Q&A with public health leaders.
Kuhn still wasn’t done. She also recently spearheaded a successful drive to have local Indigenous speakers create culturally-relevant materials in seven Alaska Native languages, including Denaakk’e, Central and Hooper Bay Yup’ik, and more. She estimates the state will be able to reach roughly 81 percent of Alaskan villages through this innovative program.
All three of the communication specialists rely on CDC, as well as their departments’ medical staffs, for guidance in creating their impactful written and graphic material. “The reference site I always use is CDC,” Melendez says. “And they have information in Spanish so this is perfect for us in Puerto Rico.”
But it’s not just about language. These communications professionals also take cultural sensitivities into account when creating messaging for their communities. An enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State, Edwards works remotely with GPTCHB and their Tribal Epidemiology Center, which represents 18 different tribes across four different states, including the Standing Rock Sioux of North and South Dakota. Some of her material is translated into Lakota, but her own native upbringing gives her great insight into what might be most effective for a tribal audience. “It’s all about protecting your circle. So it’s shifting it to, ‘Your community is what matters and your connections and family.’”
It’s also important to know your audience, and where and how they prefer to get their news. Facebook’s broad reach is helping several local health departments connect with their diverse populations. Melendez notes, “Our people really like Facebook, and they’re able to share the questions they have.”
Edwards agrees, “Hopefully, we can get all the aunties and uncles scrolling on Facebook to watch a two-minute video.” In fact, Edwards and her COVID-19 Corps colleague, physician and medical epidemiologist Dr. Meghan O’Connell, teamed up to create a special video series called “Empowering Indigenous Health.” Their first episode garnered more than 15,000 views, and now they’ve posted a dozen more short videos on a variety of coronavirus-related topics, from variants to mental health.
But old-school media is effective as well, especially in rural or outlying areas. “I make a lot of materials that we just print off and give out to people,” says Edwards. Kuhn notes, “Sometimes the best way of getting the word out is just a poster at the grocery store.”
However their message is delivered, their skill and knowledge have been invaluable in spreading the word about how not to spread COVID. And these non-clinicians are heartened to be able to help the cause. “My mom served as a nurse with our tribe for more than 30 years, and it’s always been my goal to serve in Indian country,” Edwards says. “I’m definitely blessed and thankful for the opportunity to help the Foundation and health board.”
And their states and jurisdictions are happy to have them as well. As Communications Manager Elizabeth Manning of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services affirms, “We’re very proud to have had Shannon working with us this past year and feel indebted and grateful to the CDC Foundation. She has accomplished so much and been an invaluable member of our team.”
Melendez feels the same. “I feel proud, because I’m having the opportunity to contribute during the pandemic and give information to the people. I think maybe we are making history with this job.”
This article is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $68,939,536 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.