The nine month mark: How successful has New Brunswick’s COVID-19 messaging been so far?

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New Brunswick has had nearly nine months to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and experts agree there are still many months to run this marathon before we are near a finish line .But it’s been enough time to have seen the number of our cases increase in a second wave, witness the Atlantic bubble burst, and learn a few things about what works – and what doesn’t.

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, Liberal Opposition Leader Roger Melanson, Green Party Leader David Coon and People’s Alliance Party Leader Lake Kris Austin joined the CBC Political Panel podcast to share their thoughts on the government’s handling of this unprecedented health event to date.

The clarity, transparency and consistency of the government’s message, a lightning rod for critics since the start of the pandemic, have come under special scrutiny.

Shephard admitted that there had been the hiccups, which she considered inevitable in a rapidly evolving epidemic situation.

“I think we’ve been very successful so far in keeping our messages consistent,” Shephard said.

Liberal Opposition Leader Roger Melanson says New Brunswickers have a right to know if there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in their community. (CBC News)

She cited the widespread adoption of early public health messages about physical distancing, limiting contact and washing hands frequently.

“It’s been the rallying cry from day one, and I think audiences really absorbed it and, for the most part, did just that.”

But as situations change, she says, “things can happen very quickly, change happens very quickly, and this is always where the community can be confused to keep pace. Not everyone visits the government website several times a day. ”

Plus, she said, even the most carefully thought-out messages can be received differently by different people.

“A lot of things are open to interpretation,” she said, “and I think the messages are often short-sighted”.

But Melanson, Coon and Austin all said they believe there is room for improvement to clarify the government’s message and be more transparent.

People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin says opinions on cases in areas are not specific enough. “Hearing that there is a case in zone 3 doesn’t ring a bell. (CBC News)

Breaking down the cases by zone “doesn’t tell me anything”

The daily case updates in the zones are a prime example, Austin said.

“If I hear that there are four new cases in the Fredericton area, that doesn’t ring a bell,” he says. “It could be in Woodstock, it could be Grand Lake, Fredericton, Plaster Rock or anywhere in between. It doesn’t change behavior because it’s too broad. ”

Austin said it would be best to keep it as specific as possible, taking into account confidentiality.

“Tell people Grand Lake has three cases … then people can say, ‘Normally I go to the grocery store three times a week, now I can minimize my exposure, go once a week.’

Melanson agreed, saying people “have a right to know” if there is a case in their community. And in fact, he says, they probably already know that.

“New Brunswick is small, people know each other,” he said. “They will react as they are supposed to react, which will be to take even more precautions. “

Green Party Leader David Coon dismissed the oft-repeated public health message – “Act like everyone around you has COVID-19” – as unnecessary and even cruel. (Logan Perley / CBC file)

Always be on your guard, says Shephard

Shephard disagreed, saying she understood the need for more separate numbers but that “everyone in our province needs to act like COVID is their neighbor, like COVID is in their grocery store, to Walmart, at Costco. … I firmly believe that our best protection is to always be on guard. ”

But Coon dismissed this oft-repeated public health message – “pretend everyone around you has COVID-19” – as unnecessary and even harmful.

“It’s impossible for human beings to live 24/7 in a fight-or-flight response mode with the idea that the coronavirus is all around us,” he said. “It’s just mentally cruel. People cannot live that way. “

Mental health will become a major issue this winter. I’m afraid we’re leaving people behind, and this needs to be fixed.– David Coon, leader of the Green Party

Coon thinks the government needs to make sure people are “very clear about the rules,” and that starts with giving them more information, not less.

He referred to more open messages in other provinces, where medical officers of health have used supercast events as “a good time to learn to show what can happen” when the rules are twisted or broken.

“We had a super-spreader event in Saint John, but we haven’t heard anything about it, we haven’t heard anything about how we can prevent this in the future,” he said. . “These opportunities are constantly missed. “

Recognize the negative consequences for mental health

Panelists acknowledged the enormity of the pressures associated with managing the pandemic and said many of its lessons would become clearer over time.

For now, they said, it’s important to recognize the strain on the mental health of residents as a difficult winter approaches and the tremendous efforts of public health and health care workers across the board. Province.

“People are increasingly emotionally tired and mentally exhausted,” Coon said. “Mental health will become a major issue this winter. I’m afraid we’re leaving people behind, and this needs to be fixed. ”

Shephard extended this concern to the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr Jennifer Russell, and healthcare workers, saying she cares for everyone and “tries to support them, every day.”

“We have to keep in mind that this is a stressful time for everyone,” Shephard said. “They all give a huge part of themselves to their work every day. And we must never forget that what they do is invaluable.

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