While Tarrant County’s COVID-19 numbers have significantly dropped since the pandemic’s peak, public health experts are urging residents to stay vigilant about their personal health ahead of an expected surge in cases this winter. 

That message came across during an Oct. 19 Candid Conversations event featuring Tarrant County health experts, who shared their insights on how public health officials educated the community about COVID-19 in the wake of a global pandemic. 

The conversation, hosted by the Fort Worth Report at Texas Wesleyan University, touched on the intersection between personal values and science, politics and medical mistrust and the effect of the pandemic on frontline workers. 

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“Our approach has been trying to translate science into an easy-to-understand language. Some of that can be hard, because there is so much information coming at a fast and furious pace,” said Vinny Taneja, director of Tarrant County Public Health. 

It was difficult to deliver concise talking points while also explaining the ever-evolving science behind a new virus, Taneja said. Complicated medical issues can cause the message to get lost, or be misunderstood, Taneja said. An example he gave was the specific messaging at the beginning of the pandemic about N-95 masks. 

Public health officials originally asked residents to not buy large amounts of N-95 masks because frontline workers dealing with early cases of COVID-19 could not find the personal protective equipment they needed, Taneja said. 

Officials told the public that they were not at immediate risk at that time, and health care workers needed the protection. But, that message got lost and boiled down to a single talking point: Don’t wear masks. 

“It’s really hard, but I think all of us could have done better at communication and better messaging, but we (public health experts) need a bit of breathing room to explain COVID because it is new,” Taneja said.  

Hospitals also worked to address mistrust and misinformation, said Mary Robinson, chief nursing officer at Texas Health Resources.

“At Texas Health Resources, we tried to come up with, what we thought, was the truest message at the time,” Robinson said. 

When the Centers for Disease Control continued to change messaging because of the shifting nature of the virus, nurses and patients experienced the spread of misleading information, Robinson said. 

“It was really challenging because the information did change, and when you change information frequently, people begin to not trust you,” Robinson said. 

The development of new vaccines also caused a lot of uncertainty amongst the public, said Diana Cervantes, epidemiologist and assistant professor at The University of North Texas Health Science Center.

“Being transparent about the uncertainty goes a long way. In science and public health, uncertainty can be exciting, because we’re on this road to discovery,” Cervantes said, “but for the public, uncertainty is bad.”

Public health messaging can also be interpreted differently depending on the recipient, Cervantes added. 

“When we put out a message, people think the message should be simple, but we know that message is also charged with opinion and emotion,” Cervantes said. 

People make decisions based on science and their own values, Cervantes added. The medical community didn’t know as much of the science during the COVID-19 pandemic, so people relied more heavily on their values, and those values are influenced by peers.

Listening to family and friends for reliable medical information can lead to mistrust of medical professionals, said Becky Moreno, a community health worker who does case management at Baylor Scott & White Quality Alliance.

During the height of the pandemic, Moreno worked closely with the Hispanic population in Tarrant County and found the language barrier inhibited many members of the community from receiving reliable medical information. 

“They didn’t know how to ask questions. We would refer them to the CDC website or medical information, but a lot of people in the community didn’t have a computer or know how to pull up a website,” Moreno said. “It was frustrating for them and us when they were against getting vaccinated, but they were getting a lot of misinformation. They were getting their information from friends and family in the same scenario.” 

Moreno said it took time and an increase in resources, but the Hispanic population learned how to trust their doctors.

“There was a lot of uncertainty and misconceptions. Now there is more awareness and education provided – the Hispanic population is doing much better,” Moreno said.

During heightened political polarization, it is imperative to trust health professionals and the people who dedicate their lives to understanding pandemics in order to reach a common understanding, Taneja said. 

“When you have a question about your taxes, you don’t come to me as a health professional for advice. So, when it comes to matters of public health, yes, we need to listen to political leaders because they make policy decisions,” Taneja said. “But where is the source of truth we need to go and listen to? That’s your doctor, trusted health professionals or trusted institutions like your health department, academic institutions or hospitals.”

Early in the discussion, Allison referenced a “60 Minutes” segment where President Joe Biden announced the pandemic was over in September. Taneja offered a different message. 

“I have nothing against the president, but no, the pandemic is not over. Let the scientists tell you when the pandemic is over,” Taneja said. “I don’t disagree with him – we have better vaccines, protection and COVID  is not disrupting the day to day anymore – we’re way beyond that. But the actual pandemic is not over.”

Vinny Taneja is the public health director for Tarrant County. (Sandra Sadek | Fort Worth Report)

As of now, the Tarrant County COVID-19 community spread level is ‘low,’ according to Tarrant County Public Health. As of Oct. 19, only 2.17% of staffed inpatient beds have COVID-19 patients. 

But, spikes during colder weather can cause another wave of COVID cases, Taneja said. Although community transmission is low now, he encouraged people to make educated decisions about their own health. Taneja, for example, was the only panelist wearing a mask during the event.

“I still wear a mask. I still wear a mask because after living through COVID, I’ve gained enough knowledge that COVID is coming and going in waves,” Taneja said. “Over the past three years, I’ve gained 30 pounds and ended up getting diabetes. My personal health situation changed. So now I’m at a high risk even in a low COVID environment.” 

Taneja added that he is fully vaccinated, but he is waiting to get the latest booster until shortly  before an expected surge in cases this winter. 

Making educated health decisions also aids hospitals and healthcare workers by keeping COVID patients out of the ICU, Robinson added. 

“We don’t have unlimited resources at healthcare facilities – we don’t have unlimited hospital beds,” Robinson said. “I don’t think people realize how hard it was for our teams. I get emotional because they watched people die, and that is hard. We lost caregivers to COVID, but we also lost them from the field.” 

All four panelists urged the public to not only think of their personal health, but also think about others in the community. Moreno and Taneja urged the audience to encourage unvaccinated friends and family to evaluate their decision. 

“Don’t only listen to one source,” Taneja added. “I tell people to listen to everyone, make your own decisions, but go to a trusted medical professional, have that candid conversation and then make your decision.” 

Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at izzy.acheson@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she graduated from Texas Christian University in 2022 with a double major in journalism and environmental...