As COVID-19 swept the nation last March, shuttering businesses and prompting stay-at-home orders, Lindsey Leininger found herself inundated with questions from family and friends about what was then a little-known virus.
“I’m a public health educator and I help people make sense of medical data,” said Leininger, who teaches at Dartmouth College.
Leininger wasn’t the only public health scientist getting guestions about the virus. Others in her field were receiving inquiries, too. So were doctors. “We were all awash in anxiety and questions, (and) personally fielding lots of questions,” said Leininger, an alum of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
Rather than go it alone, Leininger and 12 other doctorally trained women from various public health and medical sciences joined forces to answer coronavirus-related questions on Facebook for family and friends.
Soon, she said, “it became bigger than that.”
Launched last March, the website Dear Pandemic lets people submit their pandemic-related questions for the team, now 23 members strong, to answer. In the past year, they’ve responded to hundreds of questions, including whether you should double mask and how to encourage loved ones to get the coronavirus vaccine when it’s their turn.
“There’s an overwhelming amount of information both good and bad, and we’re trying to help people cut through that,” said Leininger. “Our entire purpose is to answer people’s questions.”
Paying homage to “Dear Abby,” the team adopted a Q&A format, with short concise answers followed by longer explanations, often filled with emojis and references to their source material at the end.
While the women behind Dear Pandemic have advanced academic degrees and expertise in an array of fields, including nursing, mental health and epidemiology, they’ve adopted the moniker “those nerdy girls” bestowed upon them by an early follower.
“I think in a lot of places and spaces it’s appropriate to lead with your credentials if it’s anything medical or moral. That demands a different kind of communication style,” Leininger said. “But for us, we’re nerdy girls first, and I think leading with humanity means we use these things like emojis and plain language. We try to demonstrate that we’re people too, living in this really confusing and stressful time.”
Cutting through the information overload that has accompanied the pandemic includes debunking misinformation without unintentionally spreading it further. To do that, Dear Pandemic uses what it calls a “truth sandwich,” Leininger says.
“You lead with a fact, debunk a piece of bad junk and then end with a fact again. … We’ll debunk something but we’ll sandwich it between buns of truth,” she said. “We don’t lead with the myth – we are really intentional about trying to center on the truth.”
During her interview with WTTW News, Leininger demonstrated that format to address the myth of COVID-19 being comparable to the flu: “COVID is not the flu. It is deadlier than the flu. It is more transmissible than the flu. You may have heard that COVID is no worse than the flu. COVID is worse than the flu. It’s killed 500,000 people in the past year.”
The team also hosts a weekly Facebook Live session at 9 a.m. Saturdays in which they answer previously submitted questions.
“We kind of joke we are nerds and we need to study before we give the answers,” Leininger said.
They never imagined they would be still be answering pandemic-related questions a year after launching the site.
“Honestly, I don’t think this work ends when this crisis ends,” said Leininger. “We take very seriously the trust our community puts in us. And I wish it were the case that medical misinformation was only of the moment, but it was something that was with us before and will be with us after.”
While the team is focused on the present rather than what the future may hold, they are looking to add to their ranks.
“We are working very hard to bring new nerdy girls on from more diverse backgrounds,” Leininger said, adding the team received funding to bring on a visiting scholar from an underrepresented population. “We are trusted messengers of our demographic. We’re humble enough to know we’re not for many communities we care about. We take very seriously the need to partner with and support and lift up trusted messengers in (those communities).”