With data suggesting pandemic fatigue, state leaders look for more effective messaging

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina could be suffering from continued pandemic fatigue even as the daily COVID-19 case counts keep climbing, suggests data collected by tech firms tracking people’s social distancing habits.

With the weekly average number of daily new cases setting a record high for the third straight day and other states tightening some restrictions ahead of the holiday season in an effort to slow the latest surge, state health leaders are working on ways to get through to people who may have become lackadaisical.

“This is something we’re trying to think through,” said Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, the state’s health director. “What are the right messages? Who are those trusted leaders with kind of a novel voice? So they don’t hear the same thing from us, we’re bringing in novel voices.”

Recent data from Google — which has been tracking mobility for months using anonymized cellphone data and comparing those figures to the pre-pandemic baseline — shows North Carolinians are visiting grocery stores and pharmacies at nearly pre-pandemic levels.

The frequency of visits to those businesses was only 2 percent below those levels before the coronavirus pandemic, with people visiting those locations at higher rates on some days than before the COVID-19 crisis started.

“People eventually fall back into old habits, old routines, and I think we’re seeing some of that,” said Brian Southwell, a senior research scientist at RTI International and an expert in human behavior.

Tech firm Unacast, which for months has been issuing letter grades for states and counties based on their distancing habits, gave the state a D-minus on Monday — an improvement over the F it received a day before. In particular, it hit state residents hard for not reducing their non-essential visits — to places like department stores and some types of restaurants, for example — by a high enough percentage.

Half of all 50 states received grades of F or D-minus on Monday.

Letter grades issued to the counties in the CBS 17 viewing area for their social distancing habits, as issued Monday by tech firm Unacast.

Thirteen of the counties in the CBS 17 viewing area received grades of D-minus or lower; the highest grade went to Warren County, a C. Edgecombe and Northampton counties received C-minuses.

Health leaders have pointed to small, seemingly safe gatherings as one of the drivers of the current surge — a reason for concern with people likely staying inside more often with lower temperatures and the holiday season approaching.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s latest order limited the size of some indoor gatherings to 10 people, down from 25. The state Department of Health and Human Services has tracked 29 clusters, 279 cases and two deaths to social gatherings, according to its weekly statewide report on clusters.

The state also has issued guidance for the holidays, urging people to limit travel and physical contact with those not in their immediate households and suggesting proactive COVID-19 tests before attending family gatherings.

“I think part of what we can do is to recognize that people have a real and sincere need to see people,” Southwell said. “People want to feel a sense of community with other people, and so the key is going to be can we find ways to remind them that they don’t necessarily have to do that in person.

“There are ways to celebrate and be together, even if it’s electronically or online,” he continued. “There’s ways as a community to celebrate if everybody’s out in the cold somewhere but still together. The real key for us is going to be to not deny people’s very real need for community but at the same time try to encourage everybody to do that and to celebrate that in a safe way.”

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