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Health Departments Respond to H1N1 through Twitter, Facebook

December 14, 2009
Computer chipStaying on Top of the Tech Curve: Using Social Media Tools during the H1N1 Response

Become a “fan” of your local health department on Facebook or follow its “tweets” on Twitter. In response to H1N1, some local health departments (LHDs) started using social media to provide up-to-the-minute information, including flu clinic schedules and mortality reports.

With lower staffing levels and decreased funding, some LHDs see social media technology as a quick and inexpensive way to communicate with residents.

As shipments of H1N1 vaccine arrive, health departments can post notices about availability to certain priority groups and clinic schedules. Social media tools have also become an effective way to reach a younger audience, especially 18- to 24-year olds who fall into one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) priority groups for H1N1 vaccinations. 

Since tweets from Twitter can be sent to cell phones as text messages, it has also become an easy way to reach mobile locations. This year, researchers at the University of California at Davis found that sending text message reminders about applying sunscreen helped increase sun protection among the message recipients.

The impact that social media has had during the H1N1 public health emergency has not been measured, but has been adopted as a strategy for quickly disseminating H1N1 and other health information.

Contra Costa Health Services in California

The swine flu gave Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS) the opportunity to put some new social media into place. It proved very successful according to Katie Fowlie, Communications Officer for CCHS. “We felt like it was an excellent tool for interacting with the press and the public," she said. "We find that they are a great way to push traffic to our site or highlight specific, timely initiatives.”

When introducing social media technology in public health departments, Fowlie recommends presenting Web 2.0 as part of a larger communication strategy—not a replacement or alternative. CCHS spent time developing a very clear policy regarding use and content to ensure quality control. Fowlie said that the best thing about these tools is that they are free and easy to use. 

Some of CCHS'' recent tweets and posts included announcements on the expansion of groups eligible for vaccine, a call for volunteers at flu clinics, food handling tips, flu clinic schedules, and statistics regarding fatalities and hospitalizations.

  • Population: 1,041,498
  • Twitter account @cocohealth: over 500 followers
  • Facebook profile: over 200 fans
Howard County Health Department in Maryland

Howard County used Twitter and Facebook as tools to reach one of the CDC target groups for H1N1 vaccination—college students. “Many of them do want to be vaccinated and are often not plugged into the media outlets that many health departments choose to use,” said Claire Hutchinson, Communications Specialist with Howard County Health Department.

County health officials decided to host a clinic at  the county’s largest college, Howard County Community College, where 7,000 students are enrolled. With the college’s help, they sent mass e-mails and text messages to students about the on-campus clinic, in addition to posting Twitter and Facebook updates. In a two-day clinic in November, approximately 2,500 young people in the priority groups were vaccinated. 

“As a side effect, we have also begun to use Facebook and Twitter as a means for communicating to the public at large,” said Hutchinson.

Fairfax County Health Department in Virginia

The Fairfax County Health Department let their constituents know about H1N1 vaccine clinic wait times by tweeting. They used social media as an interactive tool, taking comments and questions online.

On one recent Saturday, posts to Facebook and Twitter started at six in the morning, followed by almost a dozen posts throughout the day that provided real-time updates of vaccine clinics that were still open with approximate wait times. 

They also launched a YouTube site with videos about flu season safety tips, flu vaccine shipments, and clinics.

“We use social media tools to meet a larger strategy—publish on platforms people are using everyday to connect with them and remain relevant,” said Greg Licamele, Online Communications Director. 

According to Licamele, more than 1,500 people joined Facebook and about 800 joined Twitter since the first mass clinic was held six weeks ago. He calls Fairfax County’s fans and followers “information ambassadors,” who help to spread information rapidly among their networks.

On social media sites, Licamele also stresses the importance of engaging people and answering their questions. His staff has taken the time to listen to feedback and addressed issues such as vaccine availability.  

Overall, the response has been positive with several residents commenting that they were lured to H1N1 vaccine clinics by Twitter tweets and Facebook updates promising no wait times. “I think our government has gained a little more trust and credibility with many of our residents because of our social media use,” said Licamele.

  • Population: 1,036,578
  • Twitter account @fairfaxcounty: over 1,800 followers
  • Facebook profile: over 2,600 fans

Has your local health department used social media as an outreach strategy? Tell us about it! Comment below, or e-mail H1N1info@naccho.org.


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See how the Salt Lake Valley Health Department in Utah uses social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to communicate H1N1 information in this video