New communications toolkit aims to encourage routine COVID-19 testing across the U.S.

The Brown University School of Public Health, Harvard Global Health Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation launched a toolkit to help health officials, community organizations convey the importance of asymptomatic testing.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As COVID-19 cases surge nationwide, a team of medical and public health experts has developed a new communications toolkit designed to help cities, states and community partners educate people about the importance of asymptomatic COVID-19 testing.

The COVID-19 Testing Communications and Community Engagement Toolkit is a free, public resource with tools and resources to run motivating, clear campaigns to educate Americans about the ins and outs of coronavirus testing. Produced by the Brown University School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute — with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and input from local leaders — the toolkit offers guidance on campaigning best practices and a large library of “plug-and-play” testing communication materials such as social media cards and posts, animations, newsletters and handouts.

Scientists and medical professionals agree that to bring the pandemic under control, the nation needs to perform millions of tests every day. Thanks to the arrival of rapid point-of-care tests and other increases in testing capacity, cities and states can finally act on this urgent need by expanding the scope of who they are testing and screening for the virus. Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown, said that for this approach to work, however, Americans need to know why, when and where they should get tested, and how they can readily participate in testing, even if they feel healthy.

“To date, communications approaches have focused largely on encouraging testing of people who feel sick,” Jha said. “There is a significant gap in public understanding of how healthy people can spread the virus, and in which situations to seek a test. Testing delays and shortfalls also have created misconceptions about the availability of tests. And because of misinformation, there is a lack of public trust in testing as a crucial measure to suppress the virus and reduce death and suffering.”

The toolkit aims to address this problem by providing easy access to materials that are both accurate and engaging. Key messages were developed by experts in public health, medicine, epidemiology and supply chain management, who collaborated with artists and expert communicators to bring those messages to life. The information is available in English, Spanish and seven other languages frequently spoken in the U.S.

“Clear, consistent messaging about public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are among the most important and powerful strategies we have in our toolbox right now,” said Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown’s School of Public Health. “Our hope is that this campaign, which relies on positive, inspiring and personal narratives to encourage people to get tested, will drive home the importance of testing to keep our friends, families and communities safe.

Marshall was among the experts consulted in developing the toolkit, as was Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School and Brown’s School of Public Health and an emergency physician at Rhode Island Hospital. Ranney says she hopes the toolkit will help to clarify the often mixed messages people receive about the virus and testing.

“Our country continues to be bedeviled by inconsistent and confusing messaging about when and how to get tested, and what to do with the results,” Ranney said. “We're hopeful that whether you're an individual, or an institution, this toolkit will help us consistently do the right thing.”

Dr. Thomas Tsai, an assistant professor of surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute, said the toolkit helps make clear a key aspect of the pandemic: That people can pass along the virus without knowing they have it: “At least every second infection in this pandemic comes from someone who wasn’t sick when they infected others,” he said. “So to stop this silent spread of the virus, we all need to know more about how testing works and when we should seek a test.”

The full toolkit is available to public health departments, community organizations and the general public at www.covidtestingtoolkit.org.