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Duchin: Officials face 'challenge' of breaking through with public health messaging

Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Dr. Jeff Duchin, public health officer for Seattle and King County, talks to reporters on March 4, 2020 at a news conference in Seattle.

For weeks, public health officials have been sending the same message: confirmed COVID-19 cases are rising quickly in many parts of Washington state, and it's more important than ever to take precautions. 

But, amid "pandemic fatigue" and muddled messaging from political leaders, it's gotten harder to break through with that advice, King County's top public health official said Friday. 

"That is the challenge at the moment," Dr. Jeff Duchin told reporters in a virtual briefing. "We are very challenged by the fractures in our society right now, and the conflicting messaging that is coming out at leadership levels, I think. The trust in government piece and the lack of social and community cohesion, I think, is playing a role here." 

Duchin said the advice remains largely the same as it's been throughout the pandemic: wear a mask in public settings, when indoors or close to other people, and have fewer and shorter interactions with people outside your household. 

Recently, amid evidence people are letting their guards down in get-togethers with family and friends, public health officials have stressed the importance of wearing a mask at home when visitors are over, or when visiting someone else's home. Those informal gatherings have emerged as a significant source of transmission, officials say. 

Fatigue and a desire for life to get back to normal is another reason people are being less cautious, said Duchin, who studied how to craft public health messages that change people's behavior in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Epidemic Intelligence Service.

King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, along with other parts of Washington, have seen confirmed COVID-19 cases climb since mid-September. Officials attribute the "fall surge," in part, to people spending more time together indoors, where the coronavirus spreads more easily. 

"It's best to hit the brakes before we crash and not after," Duchin said. "Too many of us are doing too much with too little consideration of the consequences of our actions on others. The risk of acquiring COVID-19 today is higher now than it has ever been."

He said he worries people will wait until hospitals are strained before taking the situation seriously.

"That is my greatest fear," Duchin said, adding he hoped repeated messaging and news of out-of-control outbreaks in other states may motivate people to act sooner.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.