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‘Tremendously rewarding’: Women researchers build network to answer pandemic questions online

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Dear Pandemic team answers COVID-19 questions on Facebook

MADISON (WKOW) -- A group of researchers and scientists from around the world have spent the past year helping people better understand the pandemic by sharing facts and answering questions online.

"It was really meant to be like, you know, personal Dear Abby style advice," said Dr. Malia Jones, an infectious disease researcher at UW-Madison.

The idea started shortly after the pandemic first hit, when Jones shared some information with friends and family that quickly went viral and began an influx of questions from strangers about the uncertain future.

"People were desperate to know what to do," Jones told 27 News. "You know that feeling of not having a good path forward, of having no agency, I think was really a struggle for people."

Jones decided to reach out to a fellow researcher and they started building up a network of experts - all women - to launch 'Dear Pandemic'.

The researchers collect questions from the community and answer them in social media posts. They also host regular live chats to share information.

Dear Pandemic has grown into a team of 30 women, volunteering their time to share their expertise. They aim to stop misinformation by posting links to the research backing their messages. The group also sets community guidelines for users to respect one another and the science.

"We really decided at that time to lean into the idea that there's a lot of woman power out there that really has something to say about the pandemic and about the way we make daily decisions in our lives," Jones said.

As the stress of the pandemic settled in, UW-Madison School of Ecology Professor Dr. Christine Whelan joined as the team's "chief happiness officer", to help people through it.

"There was a need to address more than just the infectious disease element, but even going even deeper into the human element," Whelan said. "We realized that there was a lot more of this happiness and well-being outreach that could be done to make sure that everybody was well, not just in physical body, but in mind and spirit as well."

Questions have evolved over time with more focus on vaccines now, but the researchers say even being able to answer the simplest questions is still important.

"It has been tremendously rewarding to be doing this, you know, personally, and to have the feeling that I have a contribution to make in this time of crisis," Jones said. "This has been hard work and we've put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it but when we get those lovely responses from the people who read our posts, it does really feel good."

The group is talking about how they'll move forward once the world returns to normal again, but they hope their model will stick around into the future.

"In a sense, this really is the Wisconsin Idea manifest in social media form," Whelan told 27 News. "We are taking our understanding of the science and the academic work and translating it into small steps, you know, advice and and guidance for people in their everyday lives. I really think this can be a new field in science communication about meeting people right where they are in real time via social media."

Follow Dear Pandemic on Facebook or visit the website to submit your questions.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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