March 23, 2020

The speed in which information and change are occurring regarding COVID-19 is overwhelming for many of us, causing uncertainty and fear. To help quell anxiety, I want to reflect on the H1N1 pandemic a decade ago. While H1N1 wasn’t a coronavirus, we can still learn from this pandemic.

EDC collaborated on the development of an online course about how communities can prepare and respond to H1N1. Effective communication is key to reducing panic and controlling the spread of the disease. The guidance on effective communication was for leaders in community government, business, education, and social services. It may be applicable to the COVID-19, so I’d like to share it with you:

  • Communicate regularly. Let people know about the risk if there hasn’t yet been an outbreak locally. If an outbreak has occurred, communicate it immediately along with appropriate guidance. Rumors can spread rapidly and trigger fear. Frequent communication can minimize anxiety and misinformation. It’s okay to say that not all the details are available.
  • Build trust. The public is more likely to follow guidance from a credible, trustworthy source. Key to building trust is to admit uncertainty and information gaps. Acknowledge the fear and offer realistic reassurance. Let people know where they can get more information. When people are told the truth and are genuinely reassured, panic rarely occurs.
  • Develop a plan.Once decisions are made about specific actions to keep people safe, they need to be communicated. Consider:
    • Who communicates the plan – Ideally someone in a position of authority.
    • When information is shared – As quickly as possible.
    • What details are included – Information and guidance most relevant to people.
    • What tone is used – Provide hope and resources. The tone of the communication matters—it can either ease people’s minds or instill more fear.
  • Engage the public. Communication is a two-way process. Not only should information go out to the public, community leaders should learn about the public’s perceptions, concerns, and needs. Engaging people before, during, and after an outbreak builds trust and can also illuminate any barriers and challenges that should be addressed.

It’s impressive how rapidly details about the coronavirus have been communicated, and how quickly local governments, educational institutions, social services, and businesses are responding. I am heartened by the concern for people’s health. I feel confident that together we can have a dramatic impact on the course this virus takes.

Check out some additional resources:


Jenny Smith writes, designs, and manages the development of online, multimedia and print resources on social and behavioral health issues. With over 20 years of experience, her credits include award-winning online courses, PBS documentaries, and nationally distributed books and articles.
Behavioral, Physical, and Mental Health

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