What is the best means of rapidly communicating health information to the public? The COVID-19 pandemic has made this a pressing question and an important issue. Several countries have been commended for their ability to contain COVID-19’s spread in part by using mobile alerting. The World Health Organization even maintains a library of COVID-19 messages. But are wireless emergency alerts the answer? A new paper in the Natural Hazards Review offers a preliminary look at state-level and locality-level wireless emergency alert systems.
“Exploring the Use of Wireless Emergency Alerts for Notifications Regarding COVID-19: Initial Lines of Inquiry” compares WEA messages for best practices using data from FEMA, Johns Hopkins University and Medicine website, and The Washington Post coronavirus tracking website. Read the findings and recommendations of authors Hamilton Bean, Nels Grevstad, Alex Koutsoukos, and Abigail Meyer in the abstract below, or by reading the full paper in the ASCE Library.
US and international officials have sought ways to effectively use mobile technology to communicate health information to help thwart the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). This study offers a preliminary exploration into the use of the state-level (N=6) and local-level (N=53) Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) for notifications regarding COVID-19 in the US. The study compares changes in reported rates of infections and deaths between states and localities that issued WEA messages in March and April of 2020 with states that did not. Small sample sizes and differences in the rates of COVID-19 spread prohibit robust statistical analysis and detection of clear effect sizes, but estimated effects are generally in the right direction. Combining statistical analysis with preliminary categorization of both WEA message content and social media themes suggests that WEA messages might play an important role in instructing people to take protective in response to COVID-19. These initial lines of inquiry will be further developed in subsequent research.
US and international officials have sought ways to effectively communicate health information to help thwart the spread of COVID-19, with mobile alerting via cell broadcast and/or short message service (SMS) technology emerging as an important tool. Cell broadcast uses a push technology that sends messages to all enabled devices in a designated area, whereas SMS uses a point-to-point system and requires officials’ prior knowledge of specific phone numbers.
South Korea (Gold 2020), Taiwan (Chen 2020), and New Zealand (Matthews 2020) have been lauded for their ability to contain the spread of COVID-19, in part through their intensive use of mobile alerting. Officials claim that mobile alerting can help slow the spread of COVID-19 by instructing people to take appropriate protective actions, such as social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands (Gold 2020). The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains a COVID-19 SMS Message Library with templates that can be translated into multiple languages. The WHO (2020) urges “telecommunications companies worldwide to support the delivery of these messages and unleash the power of communication technology to save lives from COVID-19” (WHO 2020).
Evidence supporting the efficacy of mobile alerting for COVID-19 needs to be assessed. This study offers a preliminary exploration into the use of state-level (N=6) and locality-level (territory/county/municipal) (N=53) Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) for notifications regarding COVID-19 in the US. Although the US WEA system is used primarily for issuing severe weather warnings (i.e., for tornados, floods, and snow squalls, among others), messages are also issued that can help protect lives and property for various types of hazards (fires, industrial accidents, and drinking water contamination, among others). As of 2020, pandemic has been added to the list of hazards for which WEA messaged are issued.
Research concerning the use of WEA messages to warn at-risk publics typically focused on correlations between message attributes (i.e., source, hazard, guidance, timeframe, location, style, and map and URL inclusion) and recipients’ interpretations (i.e., comprehension, belief, and personalization) and behavioral intentions and actions (i.e., protective action decision making and response) (Bean 2019; Bean et al. 2015, 2016; Casteel and Downing 2016; Doermann et al. 2020; Kim et al. 2019; Kuligowski and Doermann 2018; Liu et al. 2017; Sutton et al. 2018; Sutton and Kuligowski 2019, Wood et al. 2018). By contrast, this exploration proposes a novel set of correlations: changes in reported rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths between states and localities that issued WEA messages in March and April of 2020 with states that did not. Combining preliminary statistical analysis with an initial exploration of both WEA message content and social media responses to statewide Orders raises the question about what role WEA messages might play in instructing people to take protective actions in response to COVID-19.
In what follows, the research questions and methods are briefly noted and short descriptions are offered of three preliminary analyses of COVID-19 WEA messages: (1) statistical model comparisons between states and localities that issued WEA messages in March and April of 2020 and states that did not; (2) comparison of COVID-19 WEA messages with social science best practice for complete messages; and (3) social media themes in response to the issuance of statewide Orders delivered over the WEA system. The authors conclude with next steps.
Read the full paper in the ASCE Library: https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)NH.1527-6996.0000472