Opinion: Ga. can lead in social connection, fighting COVID-19

ajc.com

Even when its mid-summer COVID-19 numbers were trending downward, Georgia still had far to go to get the pandemic under control. Our cases are again on the rise as a new surge of COVID engulfs the country. Add the fall seasonal flu and the shared air that more of us are breathing as we return indoors amid falling temperatures, and our near-term population health outlook leaves little room for optimism.

Yet, simple as it sounds, Georgians can collectively work to improve this outlook with individual acts that foster greater, pandemic guideline-concordant, social connection – behaviors that are within easy reach in our daily lives. A systemic effort to cultivate social connection will benefit the desire we all share for a healthier, more wholesome Georgia.

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Harris Allen, Ph.D.

Credit: contributed

Harris Allen, Ph.D.

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Harris Allen, Ph.D.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

The impact could extend well beyond our state. Even before COVID, the prevalence and severity of social disconnection sufficed to elevate it to a national public health priority. Its correlates, loneliness and social isolation, can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The pandemic has only worsened matters. Georgia could start now with this effort and become a leader on an issue that sorely needs attention across the country.

The Worrisome combination

On November 15th, eight months since COVID-19 was first detected in Georgia, our state reported its 384,997th case, 2,553 new cases, and a 9.3% positivity test rate. This rate is nearly twice that of wide-accepted recommendations for re-opening.

This situation seems unlikely to improve any time soon. Thousands attended the Macon political rally for President Trump in mid-October. While outdoors, the majority seemingly celebrated without masks and scarcely arms-length distance apart. This mirrored recent reports of similar widespread disregard in apolitical gatherings like those in nightclubs in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend. The preventive behaviors that are our best prospect for containing the virus until vaccinations achieve herd immunity are clearly being ignored by too many.

Strengthening a core societal muscle

Greater social connection is no panacea, but its intentional cultivation can become a key tool for complementing public health measures. How could something so basic be so impactful?

The experience of connecting with others generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. The benefits accrue to individual health and community resilience. Greater social connection decreases the contributions that highly prevalent behavioral health and substance abuse disorders make to morbidity, mortality, productivity loss, and their associated costs. It reduces resistance behaviors rooted in “solution aversion,” as when people shun wearing masks that can offer protection to others. And, it discourages the “mine first, mine now” mindset that can impede a “we’re-all-in-it-together” cohesiveness.

COVID-19 has spawned a remarkable if disparate uptick of friends, families, faith-based organizations, non-profits, advocacy groups, and health promotion entities that collectively is striving to augment social connection with little to no reliance on the healthcare system. However, the extent and sustainability of this uptick remain unclear, especially as public exhaustion with COVID’s surges and ebbs worsens this fall and winter.

Moreover, this increase has largely taken place inside existing social circles – “within our tribes,” so to speak, and much less “beyond our tribes.” All but totally absent in this space has been government, which can facilitate both types of connection, crucially the latter, without coercive “social engineering.” It depends on the nature of the involvement. Think of those government-funded ads that have been so effective in reducing public acceptance of smoking.

A proactive Georgia

A more-coordinated effort is now needed to foster population-level social connection. A recent Atlanta Community Food Bank Town Hall illustrates a path forward. It highlighted the gratitude often voiced by recipients when accepting the food being delivered, not just for the food but also for the human connections simultaneously being made.

I and other colleagues cited this observation when we recently proposed a new national initiative for elevating social connection alongside other primary objectives in public sector social programs. Georgia could be the first state to adopt this proposal. Here’s how it would work: State and local programs involved with the delivery, support, and sponsorship of services to the public (e.g., AmeriCorps; Points of Light) would expand on the above ACFB precedent. Briefly:

  • A duly Governor-designated entity would announce and oversee a new statewide campaign to promote guideline-concordant social connection. As one possibility, the recently created but yet-to-be staffed Office of Health Strategy and Coordination could take on this role on as a signature project.
  • The heads of key state departments (e.g., Community Affairs; Community Health) would authorize department-wide development and delivery of training, tools, and resources for identifying and supporting service recipients who are at risk for social disconnection.
  • The additional, narrowly defined responsibilities of those delivering program services would include: 1.) pre-diagnostic identification of recipients for social disconnection, and 2:) referrals to health care providers or support entities in other areas such as food insecurity.
  • Lists of referral options would be developed, updated, and shared in consultation with informed citizens, experts, and local authorities.

This intervention need not be limited to civilian organizations. The Georgia National Guard’s domestic mission, which includes delivering support services to the public ranging from hurricane relief to pandemic response like mobile COVID-19 testing, could be augmented to include identification and referral functions for social disconnection – a move that would strengthen links between both parties.

Georgia has 159 counties, each with its own Board of Health. This framework has real potential for reinforcing the grassroots effectiveness of this initiative.

Looking Ahead

While details need to be worked through, this approach along with refinements for other subpopulations would, with relatively little investment, better position us to tackle not only COVID but also other issues (e.g., health disparities), for which much broader buy-in for action is needed. It merits a close look.

Harris Allen, Ph.D., leads the Harris Allen Group, which he founded in 1998 to support performance improvements in health and health care.