Recently, Evidence for Action (E4A) co-hosted an event with National League of Cities, "Learning from Our COVID-19 Response to Build Resilient Communities.” The event was a conversation led and moderated by Eduardo Cisneros, the Intergovernmental Affairs Director for the COVID-19 Response Team for the Biden Administration, that included speakers representing different local, state, county, and federal experiences: Jorge Elorza, Mayor of Providence, RI; Tim Robb, Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Nevada Governor’s Office; and Barbie Robinson, Executive Director of Harris County Public Health; along with Julia Raifman, Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and developer of the COVID-19 U.S. State Policy (CUSP) Database.
During the event, speakers talked about applying key lessons from various COVID-19 response measures and ways local leaders can coordinate across different levels of government to build more resilient communities amid the ongoing pandemic and beyond. Below, we’ll discuss the role researchers can play in helping to build more resilient cities and respond to public health emergencies, as gleaned from the event.
Evidence About What’s Working
At the beginning of the pandemic, decisions were being made quickly with little evidence as to whether they would be effective at curtailing the spread of COVID-19. As Mayor Elorza shared, “in the early days, [there was] uncertainty and this understanding that we were making extremely consequential decisions without having all of the information and just being uncertain as to what was right around the corner.”
Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve made considerable advances both in understanding how the virus spreads and developing tactics and resources to mitigate the spread. As Julia Raifman shared, “mask mandates and vaccine mandates are the most effective policies with the lowest cost to society.” But understanding how to increase uptake of these policies as they’ve become increasingly politicized, has proven challenging. So, what do researchers have to offer?
Researchers can continue to provide evidence to leaders at all levels of government about what’s working and in which contexts. This can help influence decision-making, provide the public with rationale for policy setting and program implementation, and encourage appropriate resource allocation and development of guidance from other governing bodies.
Additionally, we’ve reached a point in the pandemic when masking and other similar policies can be “turned on or off” based on community spread. Researchers can work directly with policymakers to guide the development of policies that can automatically go into or out of effect based on community- or jurisdiction-specific data. Researchers can also collaborate with policymakers and community groups to tailor interventions for the needs of specific communities and jurisdictions. As Director Tim Robb shared, “I think that there's no one size fits all to any emergency response.”
Building Public Support
In addition to providing findings directly to decision-makers, researchers can continue to communicate their findings more broadly, either directly to the public or through trusted community partners and spokespeople. These communications can show support for evidence-based decision-making, as well as inform the public about the benefits of following specific policies and guidance, or the risks of nonadherence. As Director Robb shared, “I think communication is always important and really telling people what the risks are if they don't choose to adhere to the mitigation measures that we want to put in place, as well as just ensuring that they know what the proper things are to do.”
As Dr. Raifmain mentioned, based on the 2014 CDC Crisis and Emergency Response Manual, there are three important principles for effective communication, “be first, be right, and be actionable.” Researchers can aid this effort by working with local leaders and community groups to ensure they’re asking the right research questions that will provide useful information for decision-making. Additionally, providing up to date information and evidence in a timely manner is crucial when addressing an ever-evolving pandemic requiring open communication and transparency.
Lessons Learned Moving Forward
COVID-19 has had an unequal burden on marginalized groups and communities, as Barbie Robinson expressed, "COVID magnified the challenges and the systemic barriers that exist within our communities that perpetuate health disparities. And so in this instance, whether it was COVID, whether it's a natural disaster… we see the same outcomes over and over again. So I think it's really important, not so much for short term interventions, but rather looking at those interventions that will systemically change the trajectory and the disparities that we see in communities that have been marginalized, underserved, with poor outcomes. How do we address the social determinants of health so that we don't see these types of disproportionate impacts and disparities?"
Researchers, policymakers, community members, community based organizations, and other stakeholders can work together to evaluate which interventions show promise in moving the needle on health and racial equity within and outside of public health emergencies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to work together, across different levels of government and sectors, as we continue to respond to the pandemic as well as plan for future public health emergencies. Researchers can play a collective part in helping local leaders understand, implement, and increase public support for evidence-based policies to build more resilient communities and advance health and racial equity.