Social media is increasingly becoming a dominant force in the way Americans consume news and information.  Articles and posts are written, reposted, and engaged with by users who may pass along the articles themselves through other sites or by word-of-mouth.  Nowhere is this truer than in coverage of COVID-19.

It is no secret that we are seeing a dangerous resurgence of COVID in the Tri-State area.  In Minnesota, ICU capacity concerns are mounting as the state nears its 700,000th case.  For South Dakota, 59 of their 66 counties are listed as having “high” community spread.  And right at home in North Dakota, we are experiencing active case counts not seen since December of 2020.  Our rural hospitals are bearing the brunt of this burden as our already underfunded and understaffed health care facilities have been put to the test.

North Dakota’s own hospitals have become the poster child for this continuing crisis.  In an urgent speech to North Dakotans and the nation in mid-September, Dr. Doug Griffin, Vice President and Medical Officer for Sanford Health Fargo, outlined the alarming situation faced by the area’s healthcare system.  Despite being several weeks away from what he viewed as the peak of active COVID-19 cases, Dr. Griffin stated that ICU and hospital beds are already at capacity, forcing hospitals to reduce other medical procedures. And, to top it off, stressful working conditions are exasperating the staffing shortages that our hospitals have been facing since the pandemic began. Because of these challenges, Sanford Health has been forced to hire 150 contract nurses from other areas and provide incentives and perks to attract more staff.  Put simply, Dr. Griffin stated that it’s the “most dire staffing situation the system has faced in an area that has long had a nursing shortage and has already seen one COVID-19 surge.”

Fortunately, Dr. Griffin’s speech did not fall on deaf ears.  In the days surrounding his speech in mid-September, we have seen increased engagement from local hospitals and news outlets to spread awareness on the dire straits of the health care system.  Local media outlets, which had been relatively quiet on the state of COVID-19 prior to Dr. Griffin’s speech, increased their reporting on the COVID crisis. Hospitals and health care facilities began to release more information on their capacity and what community members can do to stop the spread.

This increase in reporting has spread through social media in the Tri-state area, as well. Local media outlets and hospitals have gathered thousands of engagements on social media on articles dealing with hospitalization and COVID-19 from local community members, and coverage of COVID-19 began to reach slightly more people than it had been throughout the beginning of September.

Many concerned residents took to social media to share new reporting of COVID-19 and speak about their own experiences working in hospitals or seeing the Delta-variant devastate their community. Our analysis found that instances of phrases like “delta-variant,” “vaccine,” “hospitals,” and “overwhelmed” dominated the online conversation about COVID-19 surrounding Dr. Griffin’s speech. When people spread stories from local, trusted outlets across social media platforms they reach individuals who may not see the news otherwise and help combat the spread of vaccine misinformation that is still so prevalent online

The rise in online discussion of COVID-19 following Dr. Griffin’s speech goes to show just how influential local health care providers and hospitals can be in shaping the public opinion of COVID-19.  Local residents, newspapers, and politicians look to these people and organizations for guidance to stay safe.  That is why it is so important for local news outlets to cover the COVID-19 crisis with accuracy and urgency.  Community members need these messages now more than ever and the local media has to be a part of this critical chain of information.  In times where the national media has fallen out of favor with many of our state’s constituents, local news outlets continue to have the trust of our residents, and we need these organizations to assist our residents and protect their health and safety.

Now that we know for certain how large and influential Sanford Health can be for the public eye, we need them to continue to broadcast their voice responsibly and effectively.  In addition to ensuring the vitality and staffing of our hospitals, we must safeguard our local news outlets that can communicate what is happening in people’s hometowns and communities. The seriousness of the Delta variant requires a strong, truthful, and active voice to stop the spread and help us get back to normal.

Tessa Gould