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Building Trust, Communicating Science and Preparing for the Next Pandemic

Professor Sandra C. Quinn chaired NASEM committee focused on building trust in public health emergency preparedness and response

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Experts say that it’s not a matter of IF we will face another pandemic, only where and when. Public health emergency preparedness is more important than ever. 

Professor Sandra Quinn, chair of the Department of Family Science, is also chair of the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine committee on building trust in public health emergency preparedness and response (PHEPR). In 2020, the committee produced a book evaluating the evidence base for public health preparedness and response for the CDC, which prompted further discussion about the underlying science. 

The committee recently held a workshop open to the public to discuss how to better build public trust.

“We were trying to bring together a lot of different voices to say, ‘okay, how do we do such things as address and increase the trust of public health preparedness and response science in communities that may have long-term been distrusting—communities who have been marginalized and sometimes even harmed by past public health actions?’” Quinn said. “So we recognized that was one big question we needed to grapple with.”

The findings of that workshop will be distilled to the CDC and to the public later this summer, but Quinn said there were a few initial findings that really stuck out.

First, building community partnerships ahead of public health crises—including pandemics, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks—is absolutely essential. 

“The old adage in preparedness is that you don’t exchange business cards at the site of an event,” Quinn said. “You develop those partnerships beforehand. So it’s clear that partnerships with other agencies with diverse communities and new organizations that serve them need to be developed long before a crisis where we're going to need to rely on them.” 

Second, public health preparedness and response requires an infrastructure in place that can quickly and readily communicate health information in a crisis. 

“That includes a couple of things—not just ‘do we have the kind of staffing we need?’” Quinn said. “That staff, whether it's a county or city health department, a tribal health department on a reservation, a state health department, or agencies like the CDC and FDA, needs to be trained in public health. It needs to be trained in some essential components of how to communicate about science and risk during an event or a response.”

That crisis and emergency risk communication needs to be in place for practitioners, Quinn said, but also for their scientists that are on the front lines in public health crises.

“Scientists are very deliberate,” she said. “Science doesn't move in a linear fashion and oftentimes, particularly with new phenomena, it really takes time.Yet in terms of preparedness and response, we need them to help us make decisions right away. So we talk about some of those tensions and how we help prepare scientists for that.”

Quinn said that she was honored to be asked to chair the committee in part because the work is essential, and in part because she’s seen when this kind of important communication goes wrong. 

“The first time I worked on anything related to public health preparedness in an emergency was working on a research study that looked at postal workers during the anthrax attacks,” she said.

At the time, she said, there was a sense that postal workers weren’t being cared for in the same way majority white, white-collar Senate staffers were.

“I learned very early in that experience that helping scientists to communicate, and helping populations that may not understand the process, understand that in an emergency, just like in the pandemic, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Quinn said. “So how do we help prepare people of those populations that are affected with what that uncertainty means?”

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