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Dr. Joe Thompson Says Communication is Key in Conquering COVID-19

3 min read
Dr. Joe Thompson is responsible for developing health policy, research activities and programs that promote better health and health care in Arkansas.
Thompson earned his medical degree from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. From 2005-2015, he was the Arkansas surgeon general.
Since 2003, Thompson has been the head of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, a nonpartisan, independent health policy center founded in 1998. He also is a professor at UAMS.

What are we not doing that we should be doing to mitigate the spread of the virus?

Arkansas is experiencing uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, and we are in for a rough few months. The potential for transmission is everywhere, particularly indoors. The virus attacks people, and — through their patronage — people are necessary for businesses. That makes this virus a direct and uncontrolled threat to the health of Arkansans and the state’s economy, simultaneously.

Transmission is accelerated by people moving and interacting, especially in congregate settings. All steps should be considered to minimize nonessential movement and interactions. Individuals must commit to wearing masks, maintaining distance, limiting time in indoor spaces away from home, and protecting those with chronic conditions.

Government officials must clearly communicate the risks and take actions that may not be popular and may negatively impact economic interests in the short term. Deaths from COVID-19 have not touched every Arkansas family, but a health care system strained to the breaking point would affect us all.

Regardless of whether we return to early pandemic restrictions, our leaders must offer strong messaging that includes the consequences for our families and our economy if we don’t do our part.

What are the biggest sources of pandemic misinformation?

It was bad luck that the pandemic arrived in a U.S. election year. Many of those in office or running for office downplayed what we were facing and failed to put the best interests of the nation ahead of their own ambitions. Science was undermined, and a unified, informed strategy for communicating the risks has been absent. The sacrifices that were needed to prevent the virus from spreading out of control were politicized — polarizing the people — and facts took a back seat to agendas.

What are the best sources of information?

Local information is necessary to help people make informed decisions. The Arkansas Department of Health has good state- and county-level information at healthy.arkansas.gov. ACHI publishes information about the pandemic, including data grouped by community, school district and ZIP code, at achi.net/covid19. However, facts can be misunderstood, and alone they are not enough to address all questions in a time of uncertainty. There must be an evolving conversation involving trusted brokers of information to keep everyone informed.

When do you think Americans will be gathering again without worry of infection?

The first half of 2021 will not be normal. This holiday season will be unlike any we have experienced. With the virus spreading, we need to sacrifice large get-togethers and take safety precautions that we know work — masking up, social distancing and washing our hands — so that a year from now we can celebrate with our entire family.

Thankfully, we can see a light at the end of the tunnel with the deployment of vaccines. If everything works out, health care workers and long-term care residents will be vaccinated by January. First responders and essential workers would follow, with vaccines available for the general population by spring or summer. The pharmaceutical industry will keep pursuing “knockout” therapies. Collectively, we can defeat this novel virus that threatens our families and livelihoods.

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