Warner: ‘Our 1st pandemic too’

Health Commissioner discusses public communication strategies

By Juliane Cartaino - For The Times-Gazette



In November 2019, when Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner appeared before the county commissioners pursuant to a request for the commissioners to place a half-mil, five-year levy on the March 2020) ballot to help assuage financial constraints on his chronically underfunded department, it goes without saying that no one in the room had an inkling of the coming upheaval that would strike the world in the ensuing months in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The levy for which Warner and others lobbied was placed on the ballot and passed the following March. But at the same time, the onslaught of uncertainty and concern about the brewing pandemic had suddenly turned the department over, which Warner presided into an in-demand hub for needed health information, and Warner became an authoritative spokesperson to whom the public turned in a time of confusion and alarm for actionable data, reassurance and direction.

Warner explained that in uneventful times, the daily preventative activities conducted by the health department and other essential governments services often go unnoticed.

Warner explained that despite all the work that is done by public service agencies to prevent problems that threaten the public safety, we notice, “the fire trucks racing toward the house fire with their lights and sirens on” more than the behind the scenes work that takes place to prevent such from happening. “Infectious diseases like COVID-19,” Warner explained, “are the health department’s ‘house fire’, so we find ourselves getting a lot more scrutiny than we are used to.”

The salience of the pandemic, and the resultant public interest, has led many seeking information to the health department’s Facebook page where Warner posts frequent informative updates, replete with statistical information, but occasionally interspersed with an unexpected dose of humor, which Warner said is part of being “authentic and relatable,” something that, “helps our message get out to the community.”

Warner said that authenticity and honesty are important parts of the health department’s public communications.

“This is the health department’s first pandemic, too, and I think it’s really important,” to tell the public, “what we don’t know, what we got wrong, and what we think will happen,” Warner said.

The health department’s social media outreach has been so successful that, according to Warner, “some of our social media posts have reached over 100,000 people.” Warner said that credit for the dissemination of health information through social media, which he said is also available on, “our website,” is attributable to an organizational effort.

“The whole health department,” has contributed to, “sharing information and resources through social media,” he said.

Warner emphasized the importance of aggregating health information through social media platforms, and added, “Social media emerged early on as an effective” means by which to publish, “community updates directly to our county without any outside agency involvement.”

One area where effective messaging sometimes has fallen short throughout the duration of the pandemic is in incentivizing COVID-19 vaccinations, with a approximately two-thirds of Highland County residents remaining unvaccinated fully despite adequate accessibility to vaccines.

“We have tried several different strategies. I don’t know that anything has been especially successful,” Warner said, speculating that personal experience might be the only factor that could nudge, “vaccine resistant people towards vaccination.” Warner said that, “It has been very frustrating to have continuing community resistance to the clear evidence supporting COVID-19 vaccination.”

Despite the challenges of communicating relevant information to the public in an unprecedented time, Warner said that his prior experience in public health and health care emergency planning gave him, “a bit of a jump start on learning to communicate during an emergency.”

Though Warner credits his accumulated experience before being selected as a health commissioner in Highland County, he added, “I still learned some things the hard way. It has been a growing experience.”

For more information about The Highland County Health Department, access its website at www.HighlandCountyHealth.org or its Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/HighlandCountyHealth.

Juliane Cartaino is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.

Health Commissioner discusses public communication strategies

By Juliane Cartaino

For The Times-Gazette