COVID-19 Information Access & Vulnerable Populations

Historically, vulnerable populations have been disproportionately affected by disasters. The term “vulnerable populations” denotes increased risk, and in the U.S. includes people with disabilities, certain racial and ethnic minorities, older adults, individuals with low literacy, those for whom English is a second language, and lower-income households, among others.[i] An individual’s social vulnerability can inhibit their personal preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. Among the identified issues in disaster research concerns vulnerable populations’ receiving and accessing emergency messaging.[ii] Further, previous research on support for the elderly and people with disabilities in the Southeast showed that many states (with the exception of Florida) barely mention these demographics in their emergency plans.[iii] The result is that communications to the elderly and people with disabilities are insufficient. Given this reality, with early messaging about COVID-19 focusing on its severity for older populations and those with underlying conditions, did those most vulnerable to COVID-19 receive timely and accessible emergency information and messaging?

A former project included a survey to gain a greater understanding of the extent to which people with disabilities and those with access and functional needs are aware of and responsive to emergency alerts.[iv] Data were collected on awareness, accessibility, trust and validation of message content, frequency of receipt of emergency messages, and actions taken upon receipt, among other things. This project will refine and re-deploy the Survey. It will be modified to gather data on how people with disabilities and older adults, first heard about COVID-19, how they currently receive COVID-19 information, and any access barriers they have experienced. Analyses of the presence (or not) of meaningful differences based on age, disability status, and disability type will be conducted. Other mediating variables such as race, income, and education will be gathered to better understand how they impact receipt of and response to COVID-19 messaging. Findings will enhance the development of more effective preparedness and response messaging strategies for state and local emergency management and inform their planning for vulnerable populations.


Principal Investigator:

Salimah LaForce,Center for Advanced Communications Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology


Advisory Committee:

Brad Fain, Ph.D., Center for Advanced Communications Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology

Jennifer Hogan, Georgia Division of Aging Services

Helena Mitchell, Ph.D., Wireless RERC, Georgia Institute of Technology

Lizbeth Ortiz, Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) and Georgia Department of Public Health


This research is made possible by a grant from the Georgia Tech’s Executive Vice President of Research, COVID-19 RAPID Response Seed Grants.


[i] Bennett, D. and LaForce, S., “Text-to-action: Understanding the interaction between accessibility of wireless emergency alerts and behavioral response,” in Risk Communication and Resilience, pp. 9-26, (Kar, B. and Cochran, D. M., Eds.), New York: Routledge (2019).

[ii] Sullivan, H.T., Hakkinen, M.T. (2006). Disaster Preparedness for Vulnerable Populations: Determining Effective Strategies for Communicating Risk, Warning and Response. In Mc Grann Conference Rutgers, USA.

[iii] Bennett, D. (2010). “State Emergency Plans: Assessing the Inclusiveness of Vulnerable Populations.” International Journal of Emergency Management, Volume 7, Issue 1.

[iv] LaForce, S., Bennett, D., Linden, M., Touzet, C. & Mitchell, H., “Optimizing accessibility of wireless emergency alerts: 2015 survey findings,” Journal on Technology & Persons with Disabilities,vol. 4, pp. 42-54, October 2016