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Science & Medicine

Health Care Workers Plead With Americans To Take Pandemic More Seriously

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As COVID cases keep going up, some doctors and nurses are getting more outspoken in an effort to get people to take the pandemic seriously. Wisconsin Public Radio's Shamane Mills has more.

SHAMANE MILLS, BYLINE: Doctors usually write prescriptions, not letters, to their patients. But with hospitals in crisis, Dr. James Heise signed an open letter pleading with people to take the pandemic more seriously.

JAMES HEISE: Only through help of the public will this slow down and allow us to, you know, stay on top of it until the vaccine starts to come to market.

MILLS: Heise works in northeastern Wisconsin. Medical staff across the country hope the public's respect for what they do will encourage better behavior, like masking up and social distancing. To drive the point home, they're writing letters to the public. Doctors in southwestern Utah warned skeptics this was not just any old cold virus. In western Pennsylvania, nurses asked the community to double down and exercise good judgment. In Wisconsin, more than 3,000 doctors and nurses recently signed a letter appearing as a full-page newspaper ad.

ANN SHEEHY: Everyone had this kind of sense of - I don't want to say panic, but a sense of urgency about how are we going to actually do this. And we were running out of good options.

MILLS: That's Ann Sheehy, one of four doctors who convinced their employer, UW Health, to pay for the ad they wrote. The letter starts off with a big show of affection, declaring, Wisconsin, we love you. Then, like a parent ready to reprimand a child, the letter lays it on the line, saying, sometimes you have to have hard conversations with family.

SHEEHY: We really intended this to be a message of unity and compassion and teamwork as opposed to telling people what to do and what not to do. Obviously, we included our recommendations in that document, but I don't think people are responding to a message of scolding.

MILLS: While public letters are not new, their use by frontline health workers is novel. That's according to David Wilcox, who teaches advertising at Marquette University.

DAVID WILCOX: It's appropriate and useful at a time where you need to have maximum impact in a very short period of time. So often you'll see that in politically charged issues.

MILLS: The doctors and nurses stress their message is not political. That contrasts with Wisconsin's Republican legislators and its Democratic governor, who continue to spar over how to handle the surging pandemic here. For NPR News, I'm Shamane Mills in Madison.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MIDI SONG, "WESTERN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.