With nearly a third of American adults unvaccinated as the country enters the higher-risk winter months, some public health experts are turning to ad campaigns that feature the voices of people in their 20s sickened by “long covid” as a way to try to motivate many younger people still reluctant to get the shots.
Resolve to Save Lives, a New York City-based nonprofit headed by Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, launched a campaign Tuesday that features testimonials from three people in their 20s who have been battling long-term health complications of covid-19 for the past year. They talk in television, radio and social media ads about devastating and lasting symptoms that prevent them from working, socializing and doing the simplest tasks. The nonprofit is hoping the voices of those “long haulers” can encourage vaccine uptake, especially among young adults.
One video is of Katelyn Van Dyke, 20, of Mt. Zion, Ill., who contracted the infection during a 15-minute visit with her sick boyfriend last November. Diagnosed with long covid in early January, she had such memory loss that she cannot remember their first dates, even after looking at photos.
Rob Smith, 22, of San Antonio, Tex., used to run five miles a day but after his covid infection, he struggles to climb stairs. Air Force veteran Isaiah Smith, 26, of Merrillville, Ind., says his chest pain feels “like an elephant on your chest, and you have no way to move it, or to relieve the pressure for it, it’s just there, constantly.” He says he struggles to lift anything over five pounds.
Persuading the unvaccinated to get their first shots is critical to defeating the pandemic, and Frieden’s group is working with state and local health officials to promote the ads in states with low vaccination rates. The states include Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee; collectively, about 50 percent of their populations are fully vaccinated, well below the national average of 59 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the pandemic approaches its two-year anniversary, public health experts and others say messaging strategy has changed, with greater reliance on testimonials to reach holdouts. Unvaccinated adults tend to be younger, with two-thirds of adults who have not gotten a coronavirus vaccine under 50, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Real testimonials are what people need right now,” said Michelle Hillman, chief campaign development officer for the Ad Council, which has partnered with the federal government and others for another public service ad campaign to convince Americans to get vaccinated. Trusted messengers “need to look and sound just like [the vaccine-hesitant], have the same shared life experience,” Hillman said. “It’s an important shift in strategy.”
One recent Ad Council campaign features pairs of young adults who are family or close friends — one vaccinated and one vaccine-hesitant — talking about the shots. “Young people, more so than any other audience, are not as keyed into what doctors or their parents think,” Hillman said. “They trust their peers.”
Louisiana health officials say they plan to use voices of the young long haulers to target five densely populated parishes, including several around New Orleans, to encourage greater vaccine uptake among 18- to 24-year-olds. One video is also available in Spanish, a welcome additional resource for local officials with limited budgets.
“We are getting questions about long covid, and it has motivated some people who are on the fence trying to weigh the risk-benefit calculation of covid and vaccines in their minds,” said Alyson Neel, communications director for Louisiana’s health department.
“We at the Louisiana Department of Health are humble enough to know that we are not always the right messenger,” Neel said, pointing to efforts to amplify new voices outside government.Some people who remain on the fence “don’t want to hear from HHS, and they often don’t want to hear from the elected officials,” she said.
In Marion County, Ind., which includes Indianapolis, getting the message to young people is critical given that young adults and children outnumbered older adults in a fall surge of infections for the first time in the pandemic, said Virginia Caine, director of Marion’s health department. The county plans a digital campaign featuring the ads in locations where young people congregate, including entertainment venues, she said.
“We really need a new message,” Caine said. Young people think they will never get sick. They need to know what can happen if they get a covid infection. “Whammo, there are long-term complications, like myocarditis, brain fog, chronic fatigue syndrome. Hair loss.”
Van Dyke, a sophomore computer science major at the University of Missouri, was one of those who was never sick as a child. But covid sent her to the emergency room four times. She was bedridden for months. To help overcome the sensation that her food smelled and tasted rotten, she wore nose plugs.
Van Dyke recovered enough to return to school this fall, but she relies on a scooter to get to and from class and note-taking software to record lectures because she cannot remember what was said. She still has to jot reminders on sticky notes, and often has energy to do only three of the 20 things on her notes. Her grades are lower, and it takes her twice as long to learn basic content, she said in an interview.
Walking up three flights of stairs to her apartment is still really hard. She also needs help getting groceries. And she has not been able to eat her favorite food — peanut butter — because it still tastes rotten.
Getting covid, she said, “can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter how strong you think you are.”
Dan Keating, Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.