Communication Is Key When Contending With COVID

By Topic: Public Health


Protecting public health and the lives of vulnerable residents has been front and center for the Detroit Health Department. In the first month of the pandemic, Detroit’s case and death count initially began rising slowly but quickly escalated, taking nearly 500 of our neighbors’ lives in just a few weeks. 

During this time, our team was paying close attention to the racial and ethnic disparities associated with COVID-19 and ensured equitable access to testing and information. Through the Detroit Health Department’s grassroots communication strategy for nearly 700,000 residents, we have hosted daily press conferences, held weekly Instagram live sessions and regular phone conferences in multiple languages, and aired TV and radio PSAs. We also expanded access to testing through the development of a tri-county drive-through, free testing site; a physician referral network; and a transportation service. Our response also has included a 24-hour call center for residents and medical experts; an on-site COVID-19 rapid testing clinic for first responders; and prioritizing testing for vulnerable populations, like seniors in nursing homes and the homeless. 

Public health traditionally works behind the scenes and, all of a sudden, my department has been thrust into the spotlight. Communication has been a key leadership skill in deliver a strong message to residents and local businesses. Communicating with my team of more than 200 through regular huddles was also essential to share the latest information and hear their challenges, successes and questions. 

One lesson learned is that constant communication is key during a pandemic—but so is the delivery. As a natural introvert, I couldn’t show my nervousness. I adopted a calm, yet strong voice, especially when speaking with residents. My goal was to share facts, as well as inspire hope, calm fears and instill confidence.  

COVID-19 has not left us, and I continue to encourage residents to wear a mask, to not gather in large groups, practice social distancing and wash their hands. This guidance is still the best defense to protect against the virus. We are also planning for flu season, as all indications are that the two will overlap. Our strategy is to help make the flu shot even more accessible and ensure residents remain as healthy as possible while continuing to fight COVID-19. 

The role of public health is to provide education, communication, surveillance and emergency preparedness year-round. As a public health official, I do not take my role in protecting the health of citizens for granted, and I am honored to continue to serve on behalf of Detroit’s residents.

Denise Fair, FACHE, chief public health officer, Detroit Health Department (