Observations and conversations: how communities learn about infection risk can impact the success of non-pharmaceutical interventions against epidemics.
BACKGROUND: Individual behavioural decisions are responses to a person's perceived social norms that could be shaped by both their physical and social environment. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, these environments correspond to epidemiological risk from contacts and the social construction of risk by communication within networks of friends. Understanding the circumstances under which the influence of these different social networks can promote the acceptance of non-pharmaceutical interventions and consequently the adoption of protective behaviours is critical for guiding useful, practical public health messaging. METHODS: We explore how information from both physical contact and social communication layers of a multiplex network can contribute to flattening the epidemic curve in a community. Connections in the physical contact layer represent opportunities for transmission, while connections in the communication layer represent social interactions through which individuals may gain information, e.g. messaging friends. RESULTS: We show that maintaining focus on awareness of risk among each individual's physical contacts promotes the greatest reduction in disease spread, but only when an individual is aware of the symptoms of a non-trivial proportion of their physical contacts (~ ≥ 20%). Information from the social communication layer without was less useful when these connections matched less well with physical contacts and contributed little in combination with accurate information from physical contacts. CONCLUSIONS: We conclude that maintaining social focus on local outbreak status will allow individuals to structure their perceived social norms appropriately and respond more rapidly when risk increases. Finding ways to relay accurate local information from trusted community leaders could improve mitigation even where more intrusive/costly strategies, such as contact-tracing, are not possible.