Social Media and COVID-19 Health Communication


Faculty from the Center for Research on Health Care are using social media as a means of health communication, not only in sharing their own research, but also in providing practical commentary on health-related research and current events. Several faculty have even recently been given “verified” status by Twitter, recognizing their authenticity and indicating that they are of public interest.

With the influx of information being shared online about COVID-19, medicine faculty can lend their expertise to clearly communicate commentary and highlight important information. Recent examples of CRHC faculty communicating health expertise on social media include Drs. Walid Gellad, Utibe Essien, and Holly Thomas.

Dr. Walid Gellad & Treatments and Vaccines

Dr. Gellad primarily uses his platform on Twitter to share news about drug efficacy, safety, and pricing, including following stories about potential COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. With tweets being limited to 280 characters, Dr. Gellad adds in nuance and explanation to others’ tweets, as well as tweeting out his perspective and expertise on news and recent publications.

“Twitter is a very effective medium for sharing your interpretation of data or events with the public and the media,” said Dr. Gellad. His contributions on Twitter help cut through the noise, helping the public and the media to understand nuanced or confusing issues in science, medicine, and public health.

Though Twitter is just one platform to on which to begin these discussions, the content can also extend beyond social media. Some of Dr. Gellad’s tweets influenced news articles, including Stat News’ article on remdesivir, which Gilead announced as a drug to speed COVID-19 recovery time.

For Dr. Gellad, Twitter is a place of community where these insights can be shared while “learning a lot and creating important professional relationships in the process.”

Dr. Utibe Essien & Health Inequities

Since early in the pandemic, Dr. Essien has been tracking news and publications related to health inequities related to COVID-19. See the entire collection of articles in his thread, which began on April 3rd and is now well over 100 tweets long, still being updated as new information and research becomes available.

“One of the hardest parts about living in a city that was initially not as hard hit by the pandemic was seeing my family members and friends on the frontlines in New York and Boston and feeling helpless,” said Dr. Essien. “However, I quickly found my passion in sharing awareness about the broad issues related to health equity that the pandemic brought into sharp focus, in hope of doing my part to address the disparities we are all observing.”

This incredible collection is just one of the reasons that Medium’s Elemental named him one of 50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic. The article described Dr. Essien as “an expert who studies racial and ethnic disparities in health care” and “an important figure to follow for understanding the disproportionate toll of Covid-19 on communities of color in the United States.”

Dr. Holly Thomas & Data Visualization

At the end of March, Dr. Thomas began creating her own graphs to track the data on COVID-19 within Allegheny County, including total number of cases, daily percent increase in cases, hospitalizations over time, and deaths over time.

“When the pandemic was first starting in Pittsburgh, I wanted to be able to visualize the case counts as data rolled in. I wanted to see if cases were rising exponentially,” said Dr. Thomas. “The Allegheny County Health Department posts daily new case counts on their Twitter, so that made it easy to get the data right away.”

“The graphs actually let us see the effects of things going on in the city,” said Dr. Thomas. “We saw the initial bump in March and April, when COVID first came to Pittsburgh. When bars and restaurants re-opened in July, we saw another bump.” 

As she continues to routinely share her graphs on Twitter, her accompanying message remains the same: Keep washing hands. Keep wearing masks (over your nose and mouth!). Keep listening to public health leaders.

October 14, 2020 • Michelle Woods