Fischhoff co-authors report on lessons from COVID
Baruch Fischhoff has participated in a evaluating the effectiveness of our government’s COVID response efforts. An expert in risk communication, much of Fischhoff’s recent work has shined a light on continued failings by officials to provide the public with crucial information on the disease.
While infections may have subsided from pandemic peaks, COVID-19 is still a serious threat and, likely, not the last pandemic to face us. Despite three years of trying, federal officials have made little progress in fulfilling their duty to inform.
“The very lack of coordination and clarity says as much as the mumbled content of these communications,” said Fischhoff, a professor of engineering and public policy. “It suggests, appropriately, that no one is in charge.”
His work has supported this point of view. In one study, Fischhoff and his co-authors found that the directions issued with home test kits were confusing to users, to the point that they could mislead someone who likely had COVID into believing they do not. The study found that the approved instructions could be worse than no instructions at all.
Fischhoff has participated in several COVID-related committees of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). One committee provided guidance on the equitable allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine, in a way that would avoid perpetuating historic health inequities. The committee’s report emphasized communicating the facts candidly and engaging community partners. Another committee laid the groundwork for a stakeholder engagement process that would create a common definition for “long COVID.”
"There would be health, political, and economic benefits to getting the communication right and it’s shameful that we’re not."
Fischhoff continues to research and work toward giving the public better, more actionable communications about COVID-19 and other threats to public health. As echoed in The COVID War, he hopes decision makers will use past mistakes to provide better risk communication going forward.
“We utterly failed to provide the public the information that it needed and we continue to fail,” he said. “It’s an institutional failure to communicate, not a failure of the public to understand. There would be health, political, and economic benefits to getting the communication right, and it’s shameful that we’re not.”