When the first wave of Covid-19 broke over the United States in March 2020, Scott Oxarart vowed he’d stop shaving until the pandemic went away.
More important, Oxarart decided that he would handle the additional workload resulting from the Covid pandemic himself. He wouldn’t call in any reinforcements for the communications department he manages at Nevada’s Washoe County Health District.
Three months later, Oxarart was sporting a scraggly, disgusting beard.
And he was well on his way to professional burnout as he encountered sometimes-hostile or poorly informed users of social media. He conducted as many as three full-blown media briefings a week, arranged untold numbers of interviews with local news outlets, and developed hundreds of press releases to inform residents of the Reno, Nevada metropolitan area–home of the Washoe County Health District–about new developments in the pandemic battle.
Facing Covid-19’s stark toll
Oxarart, who had moved from a demanding private-sector communications job into the public-health position just a few months before the arrival of Covid-19, soon found himself in a crisis unlike any other.
Part of his job, for instance, was reporting Covid-related deaths, sometimes as many as 15 a day.
Needing to accurately report the ages and genders of those who died, Oxarart routinely ran a search for the word “death” in the hundreds of emails he received daily.
“I really didn’t take notice of how grim and disturbing that was until I told my wife. She started crying,” he recalled in an email interview. “Burnout can be defined by doing things out of the ordinary and not noticing because you’re so buried with work.”
He knew it was time for a new approach, despite his pledge to continue working as a one-person communications shop.
“I had reached a point emotionally when I knew I had to get some help or stop saying, ‘Yeah, I can do that’ instead of no,” Oxarart recalled. “Eventually, I kept my commitment to inform the public to the best of my ability but wouldn’t take on additional challenges. I was so stressed that I wasn’t my usual self. It kills me to think about that. With two young daughters and the most supportive wife, no more neglecting the people who mean the most to me.”
Oxarart called in support, asking colleagues to handle the many other jobs of public health communication while he focused exclusively on the pandemic response.
He also refocused on the critical elements of the situation.
“In an emergency response, the goal is to inform as many people as possible about the current situation with facts, data, and recommendations,” he said.
Oxarart was quick to acknowledge that the demands on public health professionals aren’t the same as those faced by nurses, doctors, and hospital staff on the frontlines of the battle against Covid.
But the stressful demands on public health agencies are real.
“Our response team is filled with good-hearted people trying to slow the spread of the virus by conducting disease investigations, setting up testing and vaccine distribution infrastructure, answering phone calls from our call center, making sure test results get notified ASAP, informing the public, and so much more,” he said.
Staying above the fray
For Oxarart, the demand for effective communication resulted in preparation and distribution of more than 500 Covid-related press releases. He worked parts of nearly every weekend. Dinners with his family often were interrupted by urgent phone calls.
The job was complicated by the noise generated by a vocal minority who used social media and public meetings to discredit the work of health-district personnel.
“It’s best to focus on what you can control, which is listening to as much feedback as you can, and forming proactive communications efforts to answer those questions and inform people with facts, data, and recommendations,” Oxarart said.
He also decided that he wouldn’t get involved in arguments on social media with frequent commenters who sought to discredit health professionals.
“The key is identifying comments or questions that are reasonable in nature and addressing them, one by one. Some people, for instance, have issues scheduling vaccine or testing appointments and they genuinely need help–we need to help them,” he said.
The Washoe County Health District quickly established an email group to deliver Covid-related information directly to subscribers. Within a month, more than 30,000 people had signed up.
Oxarart organized a virtual media briefing every week, more often when needed, and made sure that a public-health professional was available for interviews at each briefing.
He explained, “A press release is always a must, but having someone for media to interview, especially for broadcast outlets, allows for more prime position on the telecast, which equals more viewers understanding your message.”
The challenges of COVID-19, Oxarart said, also reinforced other best practices of effective crisis communications:
- Surround yourself with talented people who think differently than you.
- Always analyze how the situation is affecting those in different races and ethnicities and focus on better communication with them.
- Always update social media first but use a variety of media and methods to push out accurate information quickly.
- Get media briefings going as quickly as possible.
- In preparing for media briefings and writing press releases, think like a reporter. If you don’t understand something, have the courage to ask your leadership so that you’re not faced with a media question that you can’t answer.
Oxarart’s work was noticed by the journalists with whom he works. This Is Reno, an online publication, recognized him as its Communicator of the Year for 2021.
“He went above and beyond in 2021, and the year prior, by getting out desperately needed, timely information about Covid-19 and vaccines. He facilitated, like clockwork, weekly media briefings to keep the community informed,” the publication’s editors wrote in announcing the award. “Many in the PR profession stay true to their title and actually focus on providing salient information to the public they’re meant to serve. The Washoe County Health District’s Scott Oxarart is one of those people.”