Knowledge Translation in HealthWestern Health Sciences

COVID Recovery Series: Learning from grassroots networks


By: Gina Uppal and Sarah Ashfield on behalf of our research team: Dr. Anita Kothari, Dr. Lorie Donelle, Dr. Micheal Bauer, Lyndsay Foisey, Lesley James, Heather McPhail, Shannon James

We spoke with 40 community health leaders from nonprofits, patient advocacy groups, and community health centers about what it was like pivoting operations overnight to meet the needs of the pandemic, and quickly disseminate evolving messages in order to protect our most vulnerable communities. 

In this blog, we dive into early research themes that are emerging in our preliminary analysis. Our research team will continue to hold space for these conversations over the coming months and encourage any organizations to join our monthly learning & connecting sessions. These conversations help us reflect and connect as we plan for reopenings and return to a new normal. With intention, we can exit this pandemic as a more connected, resilient public health ecosystem than when we entered.

RSVP to our sessions here: 

a transformation of communications  

Our research questions focused on the experiences of delivering public health communications during the pandemic and nearly every organization we spoke to shared an acceleration of digital communications strategies. Organizations that relied on in-person service delivery had to quickly find ways to establish new channels of communication to their clients. 

blog5image2.png Internal shifts: For some this meant building new communications teams, or reorganizing teams to add capacity to communications and engagement functions. Internally, many organizations set up weekly or daily check-ins to keep abreast of constantly evolving public health messages. In addition to moving in-person programs online, these virtual meetings were used as an opportunity to check-in with people and provide a space to share both frustrations and health information. 
blog5image3.png Landline lifelines: Some organizations identified quickly that their clients weren’t on social media, and turned to volunteers to set up compassion calls in the early days of the pandemic. Over a year later, these compassion calls continue for groups working with isolated seniors who have opted into regular calls to connect, or simply ask questions about the latest public health announcements. These programs targeted isolated seniors, and were carried out by community health services, but also patient groups or volunteers that had strong ties to their members. 


trust breakdowns, brokers, and builders  

A central theme in our conversations was trust: honouring it, building it, and leveraging it to get accurate information and harm reduction messages to populations left out of the mainstream conversations. It became clear that the vaccine rollout would happen only at the speed of trust.


Cross-sector breakdowns: Communications between public health decision makers and community organizations were often cited as confusing, and even contradictory between regions and jurisdictions. This caused confusion among clients, increasing the burden on organizations, and decreasing trust in these communications. 

blog5image5.png Brokering relationships to experts: Community organizations were key in providing trusted platforms for healthcare professionals to connect with vaccine-hesitant communities. Some organizations went as far as hiring healthcare professionals to answer questions that clients had about vaccinations. When clients had questions about the vaccine, experts were consulted through individual consultations, public presentations, and live digital question and answer sessions.

Building trusted networksIn newcomer communities, organizations went further to foster trust through recruiting community champions from within these groups. Community and peer leaders brought public health messages to individuals where they lived and gathered, with compassion and in their first language. Community ambassadors demonstrated peer leadership through sharing pictures and stories of COVID 19 testing and vaccination to foster trust within their communities.  


ACKNOWLEDGING the costs: mental health & burn-out 

As we celebrate how organizations pivoted quickly and adapted these new strategies, we must also acknowledge that this hasn’t come without a cost. Leaders of community-based organizations are worried about staff turnover beyond the pandemic, citing that staff were not prepared for the emotional labour they were required to carry in their roles during this time. 

Mental health and PTSD/trauma from the pandemic were a collective concern among participants. Leaders shared instances of staff - or even volunteers - having to give people hard messages about their prognosis or ability to access life-changing health care services when doctors and the system were unavailable. 

We also heard signals of the work ahead as the country re-opens. Groups that had to pause health promotion programs ranging from HPV vaccines, to health-living programs for families will have to try to catch up to a year lost. The health system will also have to work through a backlog of postponed services, and handle the weight of increasing advance cancer diagnoses and acclerated progression of illnesses left untreated like dementia. We hope to cover signals like these in a future blog. 

the pandemic is a portal

What public health ecosystem will emerge from this pandemic? How might we build on the work of grassroots organizations and carry the public trust we’ve gained into our post-pandemic world? How do we recognize the networks between public health and community networks? How might we direct resources to these organizations to further invest in their strength? 

Third sector organizations’ role as trusted sources of information, support, and services will be increasingly important  as we are faced with growing healthcare costs and the coming waves of public health challenges post-pandemic from mental health, to rising rates of dementia and advanced cancer diagnoses. 

Join us for a learning and visioning series where we pull together experts and keep these conversations going. Our first regroup will be June 14th where we will discuss sharing youth-friendly vaccine communications and hosting a community networking event.

RSVP on Eventbrite here: