Epidemiology Professor Offers Clarity in a Confusing Time

September 29, 2020

As we’ve seen repeatedly over the last six months, public health measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are contingent on the cooperation of the public. People wear masks only so long as they have the correct information and trust those providing guidance. Sadly, in the United States, too often we’ve been given mixed messages and misinformation.

In this environment of confusion and distrust, Sandra Albrecht, an assistant professor of epidemiology, and a group of likeminded health experts banded together under the name Dear Pandemic to spread evidence-based advice on the coronavirus and counter what the World Health Organization has called an “infodemic” of misinformation. Daily posts can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Dubbed “Nerdy Girls” by an appreciative reader, the team of 10 women PhDs brings expertise from public health, medicine, and beyond, and represent broad geographic, political, cultural, and ethnic diversity. Over the last six months, they have posted more than 500 times and attracted upward of 30,000 followers, providing guidance on questions like: “Can UV light kill coronavirus?” (it kills the virus in the air and on surfaces, but is unsafe for the human body); “How to have safer sex during a pandemic” (wear a mask); and “Is it safe to start seeing friends indoors?” (not yet).

Their answers are always lively and approachable, and they take pains to explain their reasoning in a clear language. In recent weeks, the group launched a website with a searchable database of questions. They also recently started a Spanish language version of their Facebook page called Querida Pandemia. Most of the original posts in Spanish are written by Albrecht who is Ecuadorian-American and was raised in a bilingual household, but the group was recently awarded pilot funds to support more extensive Spanish translation of their English language content. The Nerdy Girls have also been featured in news stories and published an opinion piece in the American Scientist on how to safely reopen schools.

Transmission caught-up with Dr. Albrecht to learn more.

How did you get involved in Dear Pandemic?

I have a large family and as soon as the pandemic hit, they turned to me as an epidemiologist to make sense of the situation. I read the scientific literature and reached out to colleagues, and then posted what I learned on Facebook. I took care to use language that was accessible to my family, many of whom  hadn’t gone to college and many of whom don’t speak English. Meanwhile my friends Dr. Malia Jones at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Alison Buttenheim at the University of Pennsylvania started Dear Pandemic and needed help answering a deluge of questions, so they invited me to join their effort back in March 2020. Today we’re 10 women PhDs. We’ve seen a lot of men quoted in media stories about the pandemic, yet many epidemiologists are women. We emphasize that we’re a female-run project, and most of us are mothers with young children. We call ourselves “the Nerdy Girls” not “ten PhDs” because it makes us more relatable.

Sadly, so much of the pandemic has become politicized. We’re about communicating science not about scoring political points.

What’s your approach to communicating to the public?

Before we post, we review the scientific literature and check with colleagues. Sometimes the evidence is thin, and we have to be up front about uncertainty. We don’t have all the answers. We also can’t give blanket recommendations. The risk for getting COVID isn’t uniform across the country—nor is people’s comfort with that risk. Some parts of the country are ready to reopen despite high rates of community transmission, and others are wary of reopening. We try to balance a need to allay fears while also alerting people to the very real risks. Taking the middle ground can be frustrating to the public; they want a black and white answer. But everyone’s situation is different, and there is a lot of uncertainty. We all need to understand the risks and apply them to our own lives. 

How do you address the misinformation on COVID?

As Dear Pandemic has grown, we’ve seen more comments and questions that qualify as a conspiracy theory. Like the idea that wearing a mask is bad for your health. Instead of dismissing these questions outright, we look for a nugget of truth and pivot to the facts to meet people where they are. We’ll say it’s true that masks can be uncomfortable and might make breathing more difficult for some people, but the human body has a remarkable way to adjust to slightly lower levels of oxygen just like when we’re congested with a cold. We try to find ways to come to an agreement. Sadly, so much of the pandemic has become politicized. We’re about communicating science not about scoring political points. We also provide lessons around scientific literacy to help the public more critically assess the onslaught of information that comes their way.

We may not connect with everyone immediately, but at least we’re exposing them to the correct information as a counter-balance to the misinformation out there. 

You use social media to inform people, yet social media is also a place where misinformation flourishes. Are these things at odds?

We started on social media and have been intentional about growing our platform there. Like it or not, this is where people get their news. Most of the people who follow us believe in science, but some people in their circles do not; it’s those people we want to reach. We have some pilot funding to use Facebook ads to reach a broader segment of the public. We may not connect with everyone immediately, but at least we’re exposing them to the correct information as a counter-balance to the misinformation out there. What I love is that many people, regardless of political affiliation, have come to see us as a trustworthy source of information. This is so rare in this highly politicized climate. 

Are you worried about surveys that show low interest in a COVID-19 vaccine when one is available?

We have to acknowledge people’s real fears of the vaccine. It’s understandable, especially considering what we’ve been hearing about the push to have one ready before the election. We are upfront and transparent about how a vaccine trial works, and even how to volunteer for a trial. Having the facts won’t make everyone’s fears go away, but it’s a step in the right direction.

How does your work with Dear Pandemic fit with your own research agenda?

My work looks at racial and ethnic disparities in nutrition as it relates to obesity and diabetes, especially among Hispanic/Latino populations. Of course, racial and ethnic minorities are at higher risk for more severe complications from COVID due to structural factors that increase the risk of underlying, nutrition-related chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes. But addressing these structural obstacles will require convincing policymakers, as well as the general public, of their importance, in addition to doing good science. Working with Dear Pandemic has made me realize how crucial science and health communication isnot only for the purpose of arming people with facts so that they can make evidence-based decisions in their lives, but also because an informed public is one that can demand action on the part of policymakers to enact real, meaningful change to improve population health.