Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, local, national, and global governments and institutions have made considerable efforts to educate the public about transmission, safety protocols, and vaccines. While these efforts have disseminated vital information, they also have provoked some unintended consequences, including message fatigue, pandemic fatigue, information overload, and reactance.
A joint study published in January found that individuals experiencing message fatigue feel “tired and burnt out due to an excessive and repeated exposure to similar messages about COVID-19.” It is important not to ignore or underestimate such sentiments as they pose potentially dangerous consequences. Overexposure to repetitive messages may desensitize people to news coverage and information about new cases. Worse, individuals may even actively avoid COVID-19 related news if they feel frustrated by reading or hearing what feels like redundant information. Such inattention puts people at risk since they are likely to miss key points about new variants, vaccines, and boosters.
Further complicating the matter are shifting narratives and mis-and dis-information campaigns, which inundate the general public with even more content, creating a crowded landscape of varying messages. As people try to weed through the inconsistent, conflicting, and sometimes false stories, they experience confusion and information overload, or the situation by which the excess availability of information does more harm than help.
Still another condition we must account for is pandemic fatigue, or the decreased motivation to practice preventive behaviors against COVID-19 (such as social distancing, masking, etc.) due to its prolonged nature. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, feelings of pandemic fatigue resonate with more than 70 percent of U.S. adults. The combination of message and pandemic fatigue is lethal as individuals form negative associations toward or withdraw entirely from messages they are tired of hearing about. The dangers of fatigue are amplified when individuals feel that their freedoms are being infringed upon. In an effort to restore their sense of freedom, people either reject the messaging or refuse to comply with what it is advocating (a process known as reactance). In the context of the pandemic, this is when people refuse to adhere to social distancing, masking, or proof of vaccination policies.
Despite the collective exhaustion felt around the country, local, state, and federal authorities should reconsider lifting mask mandates and vaccine requirements, instead devising action plans based on the most up-to-date case-rates and transmission numbers. Omicron served as a sobering reminder of the fact that the virus can and will continue to mutate and spread faster than we can manage. Moreover, multiple studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that masks control the spread of disease, with the odds of someone wearing an N95 or KN95 mask testing positive for COVID-19 are 83 percent lower than someone not practicing masking.
To be sure, this is not to say that we cannot have any sense of pre-COVID-19 normalcy in our lives. In a conversation with SFGate, Dr. Bob Wachter, the chair of UCSF’s department of medicine, stated that “all outdoor activities are safe, as are small groups of people who are fully vaccinated and boosted. Gatherings can be made safer by adding testing of everyone immediately before the gathering.”
Two years into the pandemic and with 65 percent of Americans fully vaccinated, we have made progress in protecting against serious illness but are unfortunately still averaging about 30,000 new cases per day. COVID-19 prevention messages are a crucial component of disease mitigation strategies, but we must be cognizant of the unintended consequences which stem from constant and repetitive messaging. Information overload from diverse media channels and personal sources cause people to feel fatigued, compromising any persuasion effects by decreasing motivation to abide by the messaging and sometimes even encouraging people to purposefully defy the message.
Given all we know about the effects of information saturation, we cannot allow this infodemic or its undesired outcomes to dictate public health policy in the midst of a pandemic.
As the World Health Organizer director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reminded us in early March 2022, “the pandemic is far from over…and it will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.” Heeding this advice, we cannot afford to let our guard down. Ignorance is not bliss in a pandemic, and it is important that we rely on trusted messengers to help ease the pain of information overload.