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Public engagement in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic: views & expectations of the publics.

Kemper, S., Kupper, J.F.H., Kengne Kamga, L.S., Brabers, A.E.M., Jong, J.D. de, Bongers, M.E.J., Timen, A. Public engagement in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic: views & expectations of the publics. European Journal of Public Health: 2021, 31(Suppl. 3)
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Introduction
During an epidemic, like COVID-19, trade-offs have to be made between measures to reduce mortality and morbidity and associated social, economic and political consequences. Traditionally, epidemic management (EM) has been guided by experts and policymakers, and is executed most attentively. It can however still be controversial in the public sphere. The question arises if public engagement (PE) could be a means to improve the quality and effectiveness of EM, as it has proven to be for other domains of healthcare policy.

Methods
From June to October 2020, seven Deliberative Discussion Focus Groups were executed with 35 Dutch citizens between 19 and 84 years old, to discuss their views on PE in COVID-19 management. Timeline Interviews were conducted to elucidate meaningful experiences during the epidemic. Next, benefits, barriers, timing and possible forms of PE in EM were discussed.

Results
Almost all participants supported PE in EM, as the integration of experiences and ideas of the public would benefit the quality of EM, and PE would increase awareness and acceptance of measures. Also, participants emphasized the importance of receiving information on the process of EM, to overcome the perceived lack of transparency herein. Consultation was seen as a fitting form for PE since the public could share ideas and feedback on EM, particularly on communication campaigns and control measures, however final authority stayed with experts. PE could be executed after the first acute phase of the epidemic, but also during evaluations. Moreover, barriers for PE were identified such as time constraints and the lack of knowledge of the public.

Conclusions
A foundation of values and conditions for PE in EM from the perspective of the public was laid. Support for PE was identified and considered valuable for quality and effectiveness of EM. Next, the results should be confirmed within a broader audience and the views of experts and policymakers on PE in EM should be elucidated.

Key messages
- According to participants, public engagement can increase quality and effectiveness of outbreak management, by sharing knowledge, experiences and ideas between the public, experts and policymakers.
- The focus groups in this study were executed whilst the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, which yielded very relevant outcomes of current interest.