@DearPandemic: Meet the women answering burning questions big and small about COVID-19

Should I still be washing all my groceries? What's actually in each type of vaccine? If you need to know, the scientists, clinicians, and scholars of Dear Pandemic have you covered.

When her father-in-law was diagnosed last July with terminal lung cancer, Wisconsin native Terri Watermolen began to plan for the inevitable funeral that would take place during the coronavirus pandemic. Unsure how her family could safely and responsibly mourn a loved one, Watermolen turned to trusted sources of information: the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dear Pandemic.

“I knew Those Nerdy Girls would help,” she says.

Those Nerdy Girls, as they call themselves, are the women scientists, scholars, and clinicians who have made it their mission to answer people’s burning questions about the pandemic.

Launched on March 10, 2020—a day before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic—the group of volunteer experts has become a valuable resource for thousands of followers who turn to its website and social media channels every day for reliable COVID-19 information. On Dear Pandemic’s pages, Watermolen found sage, straightforward information that ultimately helped her plan a short, socially distanced burial.

Most of their followers are women, a demographic that has been disproportionally affected over the past year by lockdowns, layoffs, and other disruptions. A September 2020 report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org shows that mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for housework and caregiving during the pandemic. Women have lost more jobs than men in the last year. At the same time, women remain over-represented in essential jobs such as health care and grocery store checkouts, more often putting them on the front lines.

On top of all that, women are often their family’s information seekers, says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University who studies gender inequality. This additional work “comes with tremendous costs to individual women themselves,” Cooper says. Though studies on the emotional and mental-health toll of the pandemic remain scarce, some early research suggests women have suffered more psychiatric disorders than men during the pandemic, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, and insomnia. Polls suggest women are more likely to worry about both the health and economic effects of the pandemic on their families than men, too.

That’s why “Dear Pandemic is fulfilling a great need,” she says. “It provides women with expertise and knowledge in a format that’s accessible and approachable. And when you have a resource like that, it’s hugely supportive to women who are already trying to keep a hundred balls in the air.”

Dear Pandemic has also served another, equally important purpose: It has elevated female expert’s voices at a time when few are even invited to the table. And the whole thing started when one academic wrote an email imploring her family to wash their hands.

Those Nerdy Girls are here to help

In February 2020, Malia Jones, an associate scientist of health geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was vacationing in Iceland and buying a suitcase’s worth of yarn. The novel coronavirus had made it to the U.S., and if the country went into lockdown, Jones reasoned, she would have plenty of time to knit her family a few sweaters.

Jones, a co-founder of Dear Pandemic, laughs ruefully now. “It’s hilarious in retrospect,” she says.

Shortly after she got home, Jones penned an email to friends and family warning them about the dangers of COVID-19—“‘Social distancing.’ You're going to get so sick of this phrase.”—and asking them to wash up, sanitize surfaces, and stop picking their noses or otherwise touching their faces, among other pieces of prescient advice. On March 5, Jones posted the email to her Facebook page; it was shared more than 70,000 times.

At about the same time, Alison Buttenheim, an associate professor of nursing and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, took to Twitter to answer common COVID-19 questions. Her tweets attracted the attention of Ashley Ritter, a postdoctoral fellow in the National Clinician Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Ritter had an idea: What if Buttenheim expanded her footprint to all social media?

Coincidentally, Jones and Buttenheim were friends and had already been discussing expanding their reach. The three women would soon join forces to recruit more of Those Nerdy Girls and create a cohesive social media presence. They dubbed the group Dear Pandemic, a riff on the popular Dear Abby advice column.

Lindsey Leininger, a public health specialist at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, was one of the first to join the group and is now its co-chief executive officer. At the beginning, she says, “we were building the plane while we flew it. I think now we have a couple of engines and a wing.

Today Dear Pandemic has nearly doubled its contributors to 25, and they have collectively answered hundreds of questions. The group has more than 70,000 followers on its main Facebook page, almost 5,000 followers on its recently launched Spanish language Facebook page, and a repository of more than 800 searchable posts on its website. Weekly Facebook Live videos, hosted by Jones and assisted by a sign language interpreter, answer even more questions.

Susan Guariano, a Newark, Delaware, resident, tunes in every week. “It’s like Grey’s Anatomy, Sex in the City, Friends, The Crown—name your favorite show. That’s me and the Nerdy Girls on Saturday,” she says.

On parakeets and pot smoke  

Dear Pandemic currently receives about 250 questions a week, which Jones and Gretchen Peterson, a retired instructional technology specialist and Dear Pandemic’s chief operating officer, sift through. They identify common themes and push the most timely queries to the forefront.

Practical questions abound, such as whether to keep sanitizing groceries and quarantining your mail. Some questions, Jones says, are on the quirkier side.

Can a parakeet give me COVID-19? (No.) If I cover my body in essential oils before I get my coronavirus vaccine, I won’t experience any negative side effects, right? (Wrong. But you’ll smell really good.) If masks work, why can I still smell farts when I’m wearing one? (Masks don’t block the tiny molecules that make up air flow or smells. But even fabric masks do block at least some of the larger respiratory droplets that contain COVID-19.) Can you contract coronavirus from someone else’s pot smoke? (Those Nerdy Girls haven’t answered this one yet, but Jones tells National Geographic it’s possible if you’re within six feet of the smoker.)

Most questions boil down to risk assessment—asking the experts to determine how safe or unsafe something might be to do.

“Those questions are really tricky to answer, because there’s no way to quantify risk like that,” Jones says. “So, what we have to do is figure out how to get people to do that themselves. Which is, it turns out, a big ask. It’s been an ongoing challenge.”

It can feel especially tough to convince people to make responsible decisions on the same platforms where COVID-19 misinformation often runs amok. But “what Dear Pandemic has done is put good information in the same venues [where] bad information spreads,” Ritter says.

Lifting up women’s voices

In a world where women often struggle to be recognized as experts, the Dear Pandemic team has also made a “conscious effort to lift up each other’s voices,” says Jones.  

When women are left out as experts, all people suffer, adds Jill Yavorsky, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

“Leaving women out of important, public discussions harms not only women experts, but can also perpetuate harmful ideas that men are primarily the authorities of knowledge and expertise and women are simply seekers of information—not producers,” she says.

What’s more, to answer questions, “people draw on their own experiences,” she says. “But when one demographic group dominates knowledge or supposed expertise, that very much biases the types of information that are perpetuated as true.”

The group’s internal support has paid off in tangible media appearances and intangible confidence boosts. Aparna Kumar, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and assistant professor of nursing at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, says that before she joined Dear Pandemic, “I never wanted to promote what I do.” Now, she says she’s “constantly telling people” about her accomplishments.

As more people are inoculated against COVID-19 and the U.S. looks toward returning to some semblance of normal, the women behind Dear Pandemic know their focus will have to shift. Whatever changes come, however, Those Nerdy Girls aren’t abandoning their followers.

Perhaps they’ll tackle mental well-being, substance use, diabetes, or scientific literacy, Ritter and Buttenheim say. The name Dear Pandemic may give way to another more timeless moniker.

“What we have learned through Dear Pandemic is that there is a need for a trusted venue of communication before you need it,” says Ritter. “You can't wait until a pandemic or public health crisis happens to build that network of people who are available and trusted. I do think maintaining that trusted nexus of scientists will be necessary. We aren’t going anywhere.”

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