Health Board Struggles with Best Way to Communicate to the Public

The philosophical jousting that has unfolded at Board of Health meetings throughout the Covid-19 pandemic continued during Monday’s virtual meeting.

This time the debate was on the focus of the health board’s Covid messaging.

Member Ann Kiessling, presenting a year’s worth of national data, asserted that the message should target vulnerable residents – the elderly, persons with underlying medical conditions. She stated, “This disease is not a threat to young children.”

People should “stop being terrified every time somebody tests positive,” she said. “Everybody needs to calm down about the severity unless you have the risk factors.” She named chronic lung disease, organ transplantation, and obesity as examples. “Those people really need to know in real-time who around them is infected.”

Other board members countered that the message should be aimed at everyone to strive to prevent contracting and spreading the virus. “We need to encourage residents to continue to mitigate their own risks, to upgrade your masks, make your choice wisely about how you gather,” said Maureen Richichi. She added that personal steps can “mitigate the societal risk. Our hospitals are starting to get overwhelmed.”

Earlier in the meeting, Health and Human Services Director Heidi Porter remarked that residents should “not be relying on one mitigation strategy but incorporate as many as you can.”

Member Susan Schwartz said if the emphasis is on “how I protect myself and my community,” there is a ripple effect. Her colleague Bea Brunkhorst said, “We have to try to lower transmission and do things for the greater good, and mitigate the stress that it puts on all of our communities.” Kiessling contended that there is a fear factor, and “some of the stress is self-imposed.”

Brunkhorst said the emphasis should continue to include vaccination. “I think that’s out there,” Kiessling said, adding that, “People thought that once you’re vaccinated, you’re safe.”

She shared data from the last week of December from the state Department of Public Health: there were 72,968 new cases, of which 62 percent, almost 45,000, were among vaccinated persons. But only 370 of them had to be treated in hospitals. Among the other 28,000, who were not vaccinated, she continued, some 11,000 were hospitalized.

“This is what vaccines really do,” she said. “People with real health risks should not be comforted by being around people who are vaccinated.”

Nationwide, over the course of 2021, “almost nothing that we have done has changed its course over time,” she said, except the significant decline in the number of deaths.

“We are going to be living with this virus for the rest of our lives,” Kiessling said. “These are the people that we should be worried about. It’s the over-65 group that’s in real danger.” Richichi agreed at least partially: “Those at highest risk really need to pay attention.”

Kiessling made a reference to her past criticism of requiring indoor face coverings. “Masks aren’t doing any good,” she said, adding “but this is not the time” to advance that issue as case numbers escalate and concern is high.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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