Among all the confusion surrounding COVID-19, two professors at ISU have been the source of knowledgeable support for many students.
Malynnda Johnson’s background is in public health and media representations. Her Ph.D. is in health communication with a focus on public health risk reduction and mediated health narratives.
Natasha Rascon has studied delivering difficult news, specifically diagnosis delivery, and healthcare teams.
With growing concerns, I sat down with these two in an attempt to understand more about the pandemic.
Q: What are some of the misconceptions about Coronavirus? What is the truth behind those misconceptions?
Rascon: “The biggest misconception that I’ve seen and read is that COVID-19 is only dangerous for the elderly or those who have weaker immune systems, which is not true.”
Johnson: “Even if a young person is just going to get it and be sick for a few weeks, you still have to practice social distancing because you are putting others at risk. I think one of the misconceptions is that you’re going to experience symptoms and you’re going to know you have the virus and then you would start staying away from people. What’s unique about this virus unlike any others we’ve seen, you’re contagious and spreading it before you see any symptoms. So before you start coughing and have a fever, you’re already a carrier. If you’ve been exposed you’re already passing it along. They’re already seeing a number of people who have the virus and show no symptoms. So you can be walking around thinking you’re perfectly fine and you’re not.”
Q: But you don’t look sick.
Johnson: “That’s a common phrase we hear about HIV and STIs all the time. You can be asymptomatic and HIV positive for 10 years and then all of a sudden you get sick and all of a sudden you have AIDS and all of a sudden you don’t have a lot of time left. But because we don’t talk about those things either, we don’t already naturally think like that. I have it naturally in my head that that makes sense that you can be a carrier for something and not even know it but not everyone does that.”
Q: What is the timeline of the virus?
Johnson: “I know that they say from exposure to when you show symptoms is within the two weeks which is 10 to 14 days. This is what I heard originally but we still don’t know a whole lot. There was a recent report from the CDC I believe that the virus can live on hard surfaces for up to two days and cardboard surfaces for less time, about 24 hours. So we do know now that it’s not just airborne. You can sneeze on a table and somebody walks by even two days later and pick it up. Then after picking it up it’ll take about two weeks to show symptoms but it depends on the person. Somebody with a really strong immune system might not ever show symptoms and it just passes along.”
Rascon: “To add to that, according to the center for behavioral decisions, they’re saying of course consider outliers. The outliers are showing symptoms between zero days, immediate symptoms, to 27 days so on average 14 days, but it is person by person basis.”
Johnson: “When someone has the virus if they have a healthy immune system it lasts a couple weeks that you’re sick. Again, a healthier body is probably going to blow through that quickly. Somebody that has any complications or is just exhausted from being a student, your body is worn down and it’s going to take longer.”
Rascon: “Something we, as health communication specialists, understand that our mind has an impact on our body. Whenever we talk, it has an impact on our stress levels, on our blood pressure, on our heart rate. So whenever we are having conversations about this, we are literally having an impact on the health of the people we’re talking to. I think it’s important to consider that there has to be a balance of reality and hope in all of our conversations.”
Johnson: “When we stress people out, specifically that’s when we have Cortisol being released from our brain which is toxic. When you’re stressed out and feeling nauseous, that’s because you have high amounts of Cortisol basically poisoning yourself which is super fun.”
Rascon: “I’m thinking of individuals who use our counseling center who have high anxiety who have high stress levels who might be more stressed during this time. We need to have positive, supportive conversations with those in our support networks. I saw recently someone said, social distancing does not mean social isolation. This is so true; we can still support our friends and family through the various technology that we are privileged to have and use.”
Johnson: “Good thing we’re meeting virtually.”
Q: Has anything about the virus or the conversations about it surprised you?
Johnson: “No. In this country we have a long established history of not presenting things in the best way. We overreact, the media puts out too much information or doesn’t give enough information. They don’t always, in my opinion, think about the way things are being framed. It’s very fearmongering. It’s that we want to get people to react so they think ‘let’s scare them’ and not give them any resources, which we know from a psychological standpoint this is incredibly dangerous and often backfires. It does not surprise me. I keep wishing that every time we have a health crisis in the media that we would have learned from previous and every time I see us doing the exact same thing that we did before. I think back to Ebola when we had a few cases and the media went rampant and had everyone scared thinking we were going to have all of these cases when we didn’t because we had all of these protocols in place and from a medical standpoint we knew how to treat and contain it. But the media had everyone scared and ramped up and we’re doing the same thing here but we don’t have the infrastructures to actually contain this. We don’t know enough right now to know how bad it’s going to get. It’s a mixture of this is the time that we really shouldn’t have done that but we did. I’m seeing a lot now where they’re telling people to call your doctor, don’t go running to a hospital, practice social distancing and please listen to these types of officials and who not to listen to. Listen to the CDC, and everyone else just needs to be silent.”
Rascon: “People are relating this to the Ebola virus. People are thinking oh, see, we overreacted then and we’re just overreacting now, which is detrimental, because there is so much we do not know about COVID-19. So perhaps another misconception is that people are overreacting. Instead, we should know that it is important to take the recommended steps. We should go to the sources like the CDC or World Health Organization. There are daily updates, hourly updates even; it’s constantly changing. So rather than listening to social media where most love to go for information, it is important that we are going to the source to decrease the uncertainty and anxiety and fulfill our part in this process.”
Q: What is your take on how the government, universities, and media are speaking about the pandemic? Do any of the conversations concern you from a health communication standpoint?
Rascon: “From a health communication perspective, I see that many organizations need to employ health communication professionals or include them in the process of message construction. Many of the messages I have seen, I reconstruct in my head to make them better—then I use that information to reconstruct misconceptions in conversations with others who have also read similar messages. It goes back to that balance of our dialectical tensions—in short, desires to have opposites such as openness and closedness. People are struggling to construct a reality that might be scary as well as construct hope that is not overpromising—a common balance that those who delivery difficult news face. Now, many people are facing this struggle, which is why some people say, ‘oh you’re overreacting,’ or ‘oh you’re naïve’. I will also say that when difficult information is discussed, it is often at an interpersonal level, between a relatively small number of people, including patients and caregivers. When someone receives a diagnosis or a timeline, it is at this interpersonal level so the message can be tailored and structured based on who is involved in the interaction. Now, those who must deliver this difficult news regarding the COVID-19, must deliver it to a mass audience and in a timely manner. So we are seeing experts search for an appropriate combination of an interpersonally constructed message and a mass-mediated message to effectively encourage everyone to play a role that will help us collectively to control and end this pandemic.”
Q: One thing both professionals stress is that the scariness does not call for us to panic, it calls for us to take advised steps.
Rascon: “If I could leave you with one line it would be that, what we say matters and how we say it matters too.”