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Webinar Series Illuminates the Dark Corners of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Written by Tyler Smith on February 19, 2021

It has been nearly one year since the first reported case of COVID-19 in Colorado. Since that time, the state and local communities have continued to grapple with fundamental problems, notably protecting public health while cushioning the economic blow of doing so.

The still unfolding story of that response has a through line: the need for accurate information about a still challenging virus that has killed and hospitalized tens of thousands of Coloradans and sown deep political and social divisions. Early on in the pandemic, the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS) stepped into this breach, along with the Institute for Science & Policy, a DMNS initiative created to bolster the importance of science in crafting public policy.

The collaboration produced a still-growing online resource, COVID-19 in Colorado: A Virtual Conversation Series. The free 45-minute webinars, which now number two dozen, began in late April 2020 with a presentation by ColoradoSPH Dean Dr. Jon Samet on questions about how to control the COVID-19 epidemic in Colorado.

Information collaboration

Samet said the idea for a regular webinar series grew out of conversations with George Sparks, president and CEO of DMNS, head of the Institute for Science and Policy, and a member of the ColoradoSPH advisory board. The two shared a concern with the spread of both the coronavirus and misinformation about it. Both were keen on sharing science-based information with the public.

In addition, DMNS wanted to find a way to maintain its 153-year-long community connection. The pandemic forced the museum to close for 100 days, the first time it had been dark for an extended period since the great flu pandemic of 1918.

Since Samet’s initial presentation, the series has tackled a wide spectrum of COVID-19-related topics, with local and national experts presenting information and answering questions from a committed audience. Early topics focused on issues like testing, social distancing, and the struggles of front-line workers battling the disease.

The series continues to address new issues as they emerge. These include racial inequities exposed by COVID-19, challenges to mental health, the economic impacts of the pandemic, vaccine development, and most recently questions about variants of the virus. High-profile contributors have included Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who provided a late January update on the state’s response to the pandemic.

A loyal audience

The early presentations drew about 1,000 live viewers and have since “found a steady, loyal audience,” said Kristan Uhlenbrock, director of the Institute for Science & Policy, who serves as moderator for the webinars. People return because they are hungry for information about a virus that continues to create so much uncertainty, Uhlenbrock added.

“The webinars have been a quick and fast way to share what we know in real time from experts,” she said. “From the beginning, our audience was searching for something more about COVID-19 than what was happening in the headlines.”

The 2020 numbers show the impressive reach of the series:

  • 20,000+ households reached
  • 8,000+ live views
  • 6,000+ Facebook views
  • 5,500+ YouTube views

Uhlenbrock emphasized that the webinars don’t push a particular point of view. Their goal is to spread the most current science-based information.

“Trust is one of the things we are very protective of,” she said. “We don’t tell people what they should do. There is rarely a clear, single answer to any issue. We present science as best we know it in the context of individuals’ emotions and belief systems.”

Evenhanded presentations

During the webinars, Uhlenbrock fields questions submitted by viewers and passes them on the presenter. She readily acknowledged that some queries are adversarial. A small but vocal minority, for example, sharply questioned Governor Polis’s explanations about the state’s handling of the pandemic.

“We had some upset audience members who have strong belief systems about the economy and how the virus affects their lives,” Uhlenbrock said. “We are not advocating for any particular decision or point of view. We try to be transparent.”

Samet said the webinars are a rich resource for teaching, adding that he uses them for a one-credit course that addresses the pandemic in real time. And for all the misery inflicted by COVID-19, the forced transition from live gatherings to Zoom has made it easier to arrange presentations by high-profile public health figures like Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.

“It’s a great opportunity to hear from experts and understand the evidence that is emerging,” Samet said.

The series “won’t go on forever,” Samet said, but with the pandemic stubbornly persisting, people can expect more presentations in the months ahead. The ColoradoSPH/DMNS collaboration will maintain its commitment to fighting fear and misinformation with the best available data and science, Uhlenbrock added.

“Everyone has to do their part to protect themselves and their neighbors,” she said. “The series is our own small part to help do that. If it was helpful to some people to be reassured, that’s something we cherish.”

What’s next?

On tap for the Virtual Conversation Series are three episodes (February 23, March 10, and March 24) that will focus on “The Road to a New Normal,” including the future of public health and science, the future of education, and the future of business and culture. The episodes will discuss how COVID-19 has impacted these areas, lessons learned, and predictions for what will be lasting changes caused by the pandemic.