BU’s Information Policy is Inadequate for a Pandemic

UPDATE: The public health expert who is referred to below and who is the author of the quoted text and the document that I link to is Professor Michael Siegel. At the time this blog post was written he wished to remain anonymous.

Does Boston University possess a pandemic information policy? If some such policy statement exists, does it outline a satisfactory policy? If it does, is that policy being properly followed? There are signs that clearly indicate that there is no good pandemic information policy being followed at the moment.

It seems to me that it is crucial to have regular communications provided to the whole BU community, and that such communications be honest and informative. The absence of such communications, especially at this time, undermines trust in our institution. It prevents people from learning what they need to learn in order to make confident, well-informed decisions that contribute to and protect the general wellbeing of the community, and it prevents them from getting on with their work or study without being in a state of anxiety, or simply being dissatisfied with things that are happening (or seem to be happening) at BU.

But what do I know? I’m just an ethicist who normally does research at the fairly theoretical end of the subject. I decided to reach out to a well-respected public health expert at BU. Here is what this expert said: 

“The importance of clear, up-to-date, and accurate information is essential during an outbreak or pandemic, and there is a good body of public health scholarship on precisely this issue. Two other elements that are critical are honesty and transparency. It is critical for the messengers to build trust with the audience, and when honesty or even just transparency is lacking, it undermines that trust, which leads to much less effective communications. At a national level, I am convinced that this has played a huge role in the lower rates of compliance than one would have expected given the circumstances.

At any rate, as far as sources, to start there is the CDC’s guidelines on public communication during an outbreak. It includes a nice “Do’s and Don’ts” table (12.1), and it looks like the University has almost uniformly been following the Don’ts. The CDC also has an emergency communication guidebook. Of particular interest are the sections on credibility and trust on pages 7 and 8. For example:

‘Your message delivery can make or break your credibility. This will affect how audiences react to your initial message and all communications that follow. Two influencers of credibility are the speed of release and the accuracy of information. 

This is the first part of the response I received from the BU public health specialist that I contacted. You can read the full response here

Let me acknowledge that the Covid-19 Testing Data Dashboard is now online, and that, despite some significant problems with it – such as the PR spin that comes from showing total number of people who have tested positive / total number of tests, rather than total number of people who have tested positive / total number of people tested – this is a good thing (as is the testing program, of course). There is also the Back to BU guide. But good information policy isn’t just about providing a dashboard and a general guide. At the moment, new communications about various important developments at the university slowly trickle down from the Provost’s office to Deans across the different colleges, who then tailor or select bits of information in various ways which they then provide to department chairs, who then may or may not provide their department members with this information (this isn’t meant as a criticism of chairs; in many communications to chairs that I’ve seen, it isn’t clear from the communication itself whether or not it is being recommended that they share the communication with department members, and often chairs err on the side of caution and don’t share them). Other bits of information come out in town hall meetings with students, and faculty only hear about them because of Twitter, or the Daily Free Press. BU Public Relations then says something in response that is often unhelpful, and sometimes misleading or deceptive (one example of this is detailed here). And sometimes administrative staff reveal things we should have all been informed about to particular people who they happen to come into contact with. 

Here is a constructive proposal. BU should task an appropriate individual, with a background that is in Public Health, rather than Public Relations, who is separate from the Provost’s office and BU Public Relations, to send out daily bulletins to all employees and students, containing information about new policies, changes in policies, events on campus relevant to efforts to control the spread of Covid-19, etc. In cases where policies are under review, it could be acknowledged that this is the case, rather than there being silence on an issue. There could also be an email address or Twitter feed to provide a venue for questions to be submitted. Here are some examples of things that might be said right now in such a bulletin (I have done my best to state these truthfully; if I have made mistakes I am happy to make corrections):

“The policy that instructors will not be notified if a student who has been attending their in-person class tests positive for Covid-19 is presently being reconsidered. We realize this is an important matter, and we hope to let everyone know the outcome of this review process as soon as possible.” [see this article]

“The idea that real time CO2 testing devices should be made widely available for instructors to use in classrooms is presently under consideration.” [see this post]

“We apologize for not providing everyone with a clear message regarding our faculty and staff pledge. To be clear: faculty and staff are not required to commit to our pledge, although we encourage them to commit themselves to it. We will not be keeping information on who has agreed to the pledge and who hasn’t. Everyone is bound by our protocols, whether or not they commit to the pledge.” [see this post]

“The policy regarding masks is still under review – we may still ban certain types of masks from being used indoors, and not merely recommend that they not be used – and we will provide further information as soon as a decision on this matter has been made.” [see this article]

“BU Information Technology was supposed to send everyone a heads up on August 14 regarding the fact that the Healthway daily testing and attestation site would be going online the next day; unfortunately, due to a technical error, many people did not receive this communication. We apologize for this. The email can be read here.” [Link to email]

“We did say that there would be a phone app. We have since changed our plans, because of a hurdle with getting such an app into app stores quickly enough. We apologize for any disappointment this might cause, but we will not be providing such an app, despite what is still said in some places on the BU website.” [see this article

“We realize a serious concern has been raised regarding the fact that for certain rooms, the specification for the maximum number of students that can fit in the room has recently increased. We found we were able to fit even more people in the room, following the six foot social distancing rule.” [This policy is a bad idea, and the recent increase in numbers surprising, but it would have been a good idea to at least tell everyone about this.]

These are just a few recent examples that I have selected because they highlight recent changes and pressing problems, of varying degrees of importance. I am not suggesting that all messages that might might be put in a daily digest sent to everyone in the university community would need to concern pressing issues, but the establishment of this practice might go a long way to preventing the communications mishaps we have been seeing happening at BU in recent times. These mishaps, a number of them previously reported on this website, have been undermining trust in the university. Even if that were not the case, BU should be aiming to properly follow public health guidelines regarding information policies during a pandemic.

UPDATE 1, August 24: Dean Klapperich has kindly commented on the issue of the cumulative totals on the Covid-19 Dashboard being misleading, due to the fact that the denominator is number of tests, rather than number of people tested. She has indicated that sometime after September 6, we should see the statistics we need on the dashboard to make more useful comparisons with the general population. It sounds like we are unlikely to have this information until at least one week into semester. She rejects the use of “misleading”.

UPDATE 2, August 24: I agree that the document mentioned below is completely unacceptable. I have confirmed it was distributed to students, and I have the original copy. The version now online for this restricted group has been changed: there is now no mention of skirt length, and a face mask rule has been added. While it is a very good thing that the document was quickly changed, the damage has been done (since it was provided to student moderators), and quickly changing a document without issuing a public correction or apology – the second would be appropriate in this case – is precisely the kind of thing you do when you have an inadequate information policy.