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Getting the word out: Working with community partners to build a pandemic communication strategy

LaborDay Septermber Baker Ripley

People obtain information about important issues in different ways—it’s a fact that teams with UTHealth School of Public Health’s Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences confront constantly in their research programs and community outreach. Project teams have to be creative, so when COVID-19 brought Texas to a grinding halt, no one was daunted by the additional outreach constraints of social distancing or working remotely. They jumped into action. 


“Our first step was to undertake a rapid needs assessment, evaluating the communication opportunities, identifying what misinformation was being circulated, what assets we had and what organizations were already trying to do something,” explains Dr. Lara Savas, who is an associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion & Behavioral Sciences. Along with other researchers, Dr. Savas is leading the organization and staffing of this project.  

That rapid needs assessment included calling community partners to find out what kind of messaging and materials were needed, and how they could be disseminated. One of the early partners was the South Coastal Area Health Educational Center (AHEC). AHECs enhance communities’ access to quality health care by improving the supply and distribution of healthcare professionals and programs via strategic partnerships. “We like to say, if you’ve seen one AHEC, you’ve seen one AHEC,” jokes Bel Flores, South Coastal AHEC Director?. “When COVID-19 hit, we had a real need for simple, consistent messaging that we knew would make a difference in keeping people safe, like wash your hands, social distance, wear a mask.”

Getting information to communities isn’t always simple. Another early partner of the project was BakerRipley, a trusted community organization that works with over half a million Harris County residents annually. “We know so many people lack the access to critical, life-saving information,” said Ebony Fleming, BakerRipley’s Director of Communications. “This pandemic has truly put the digital divide into perspective. So now we must find ways to reach these people, and that comes with another set of challenges.”

Flores agrees, “All our health fairs, our back to school physicals, events where people would normally get important health information, all that ceased with COVID-19.”

What didn’t stop was food distribution programs. Fleming explains, “COVID-19 exacerbated every inequity that vulnerable communities across our region face.”

For many families affected by unemployment or reduced access to community resources, these food fairs were a lifeline. The teams at UTHealth School of Public Health, South Coastal AHEC, and BakerRipley quickly realized that they could serve more than one purpose.

“[UTHealth School of Public Health] helped us print flyers with information about COVID-19. We’ve been able to stuff those materials into the food boxes at distribution events. Soon, we’ll be having our school supply drives and we’ll be able to use those materials there, as well,” says Flores.

“Our goal with the flyers and social media posts was to target the determinants of behavior change. We wanted to raise people’s confidence when it came to choosing to socially distance, or choosing to wear a mask. We wanted to set expectations for what actions would work,” Dr. Savas explains. So far, volunteers have translated the materials into over 4 languages for distribution.

Both South Coastal AHEC and BakerRipley agree that community members have found the flyers helpful in clearing up misinformation or uncertainty during the pandemic. “The messaging we got was so professional,” says Flores. “Many times for rural or underinsured people, they sort of end up with extras or leftovers [from other campaigns]. We were able to give our communities something high quality, specifically for their needs and concerns. We’re very grateful for that.”

But despite early success, everyone knows there’s more work to be done. “People are struggling to make ends meet. There’s not just the threat of sickness. The disruptions people are experiencing—educational, financial—can have an impact for years to come,” Fleming notes. “As a result, those of us who have the resources to affect change need to start thinking about how we continue to help those who need help the most.”

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